End Credits #50: Cinema's 2016 Lost Treasures Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder (June 11, 1933 - August 29, 2016) the legendary comic actor and filmmaker has died at age 83.
Guest contributor Bob DiMucci has provided this tribute to his motion picture career:
The Films of Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Jeanne (Baer) and William J. Silberman, who manufactured miniature whiskey and beer bottles. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, while his Illinois-born mother was of Russian Jewish descent.
Wilder caught his first big break playing a small role in the off-Broadway production of Arnold Wesker's "Roots" and followed quickly with his Broadway debut as the comic valet in "The Complaisant Lover" (both 1961), for which he won the Clement Derwent Award. His other Broadway credits included "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1963, with Kirk Douglas), "The White House" (1964, with Helen Hayes) and "Luv" (1966), but it was a 1963 Broadway production of "Mother Courage and Her Children" that altered the course of his life forever. In its cast was Anne Bancroft, who was dating Mel Brooks at the time, and the relationship established between the two men eventually led to Wilder's becoming part of Brooks' "stock company".
Gene Wilder's Actor's Studio connection may have helped him land his first feature, BONNIE AND CLYDE, in which he drew much favorable attention in a small but memorable role as a frightened young undertaker abducted by the legendary duo. The characters “Eugene Grizzard” and “Velma Davis” (played Evans Evans) are based on Dillard Darby and Sophia Stone of Ruston, Louisiana. On the night of April 27, 1933, Darby and Stone were briefly kidnapped by the Barrow gang, who had stolen Darby's car. After driving around Ruston for several hours, Darby and Stone were released unharmed. During the drive, when Darby mentioned that he was an undertaker, Bonnie Parker remarked, "Well, maybe you'll work on me someday." A year later, Darby did just that. He was one of the undertakers who worked on Bonnie Parker's body after she and Clyde Barrow were killed in the roadside ambush near Gibsland, Louisiana, in May 1934.
Arthur Penn directed the 1967 film. The score by Charles Strouse was issued on a dialogue-heavy Warner Bros. LP, which has been reissued on CD by Collector’s Choice.
Gene Wilder moved into his first co-starring role in his second film, appearing as “Leo Bloom,” a timorous and neurotic accountant, in Mel Brooks’ THE PRODUCERS. In June 1963 Brooks invited Wilder to spend the weekend with him and Anne Bancroft on Fire Island, where he gave him the first 30 pages of THE PRODUCERS to read. Wilder liked it immediately and Brooks offered him the part.
Three years passed without Wilder receiving a phone call or any contact with Brooks about the film. He assumed the project was dead. Then one night when he was performing in the play “Luv,” Brooks showed up in his dressing room out of the blue with producer Sidney Glazier in tow. It was as if not a day had passed. "We got the money, here's the script, you're Leo Bloom," said Brooks. Wilder couldn't believe it. There was just one obstacle: Zero Mostel didn't know Wilder and wanted to meet him first. If he passed muster with Mostel, he had the part.
Wilder was nervous about his first meeting with Mostel. "This huge, round, fantasy of a man came waltzing towards me," said Wilder in his 2005 autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger. "My heart was pounding so loud I thought he'd hear it. I stuck out my hand, politely, to shake his, but instead of shaking my hand, Zero pulled me into his body and gave me a giant kiss on the lips. All nervousness floated away...I gave a good reading and was cast." In a later interview, Wilder said that at the first full cast reading of the script he excused himself to leave for a dentist appointment he could not miss when in fact, he had to go to the unemployment office to collect a check for $55 he desperately needed at the time.
Brooks described to Wilder the character of Leo Bloom as "a neurotic bud that blossoms into a neurotic flower, a shy guy who carries around a piece of blue baby blanket with him for security." He continued to reassure Wilder that he wouldn't have to act, because Brooks was careful to hire only the actors "who are just right for the parts." Concerned, Wilder asked Anne Bancroft, "Does he really think I'm like that?" She replied, "Just go along with him."
Nevertheless, executive producer Joseph E. Levine wanted to fire Wilder after seeing some of the footage because he thought he “stunk.” Levine wanted to give Mel Brooks $35,000 more to find someone better, but the director convinced Levine that Wilder was fine and would make the movie work. Zero Mostel took Wilder under his wing and the two became friends. "You may have heard stories about how bombastic, aggressive, and dictatorial Zero might be," said Wilder. "It didn't happen with me. He always took care of me. I loved him. He looked after me as if I were a baby sparrow."
To get into character, Wilder imagined that his reactions to the madness throughout the film would be the same as the audience's watching it. The "hysterical" scene was filmed at the end of a long day, and an exhausted Wilder told Mel Brooks that he just didn't think he "had it in him" to shoot it that day. Brooks solved the problem by loading the actor up with sugar and caffeine (in the form of two Hershey bars and a cup of coffee), after which the scene was shot in just two takes. Wilder wrote half of Leo's courtroom monologue at the end of the film. Mel Brooks wrote the other half.
Gene Wilder was nominated for an Academy Award for “Best Actor in a Supporting Role,” losing to Jack Albertson for THE SUBJECT WAS ROSES. John Morris scored the 1967 film. A few minutes of his sparse score showed up on the RCA Records LP, which was nearly all dialogue from the film. The LP was re-issued on CD by Razor & Tie (1997) and RCA Spain (2003).
Gene Wilder’s first lead role came in the 1970 costume comedy START THE REVOLUTION WITHOUT ME. In 18th-century France, a doctor confuses two sets of twins born to the Corsican “Duke Di Sisi” and to “Coupé,” a peasant. To ensure that each father will get at least one of his natural sons, he gives both men one baby from each set. By 1789, the Di Sisi brothers, “Philippe” (Wilder) and “Pierre” (Donald Sutherland), have become notorious for their swordplay, and when King Louis XVI (Hugh Griffith) begins to fear that revolution is imminent, he sends a note asking for their help.
Wilder wanted Charles Grodin to play the part of Pierre, but Grodin declined, having committed to directing the original Broadway production of “Lovers and Other Strangers.” Wilder himself chose to do this film over CATCH-22. Wilder was already adept with a sword from his days on his college fencing team. Bud Yorkin directed the film, and John Addison provided the unreleased score.
Wilder’s other film of 1970 was done no favors by its title—QUACKSER FORTUNE HAS A COUSIN IN THE BRONX. The film was produced by Sidney Glazier (THE PRODUCERS) and was only the second feature directed by Waris Hussein. In the film, Wilder starred as the title character “Quackser Fortune,” who earns a living in Dublin by collecting horse manure and selling it to housewives for their gardens. He meets and immediately falls in love with “Zazel Pierce” (Margot Kidder), a wealthy American student at Trinity College. The film’s score, by Michael Dress, has not had a release.
QUACKSER FORTUNE died at the box office. Years later, in 1981, after Wilder's huge success in STIR CRAZY, the distributor 21st Century re-released the film under the title FUN LOVING, to no better effect.
Joel Grey was the leading contender for the role of “Willy Wonka” before it was offered to Gene Wilder. As it is, the role, in 1971’s WILLY WONKA & THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, became one of Wilder’s most famous. When Wilder walked in to audition, director Mel Stuart knew before he'd even uttered a single word that he had found his Willy Wonka. The audition convinced him even further, so when Wilder finished and left the room, Stuart chased him down the hallway, cut him off at the elevator bank, grabbed his arm and told him "You're doing this picture, no two ways about it! You are Willy Wonka!" Wilder said he would take the role under one condition: that he be allowed to limp, then suddenly somersault, in the scene when he first meets the children. When Stuart asked why, Wilder replied that having Wonka do this meant that "from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth." Stuart asked, "If I say no, you won't do the picture?", and Gene Wilder said "I'm afraid that's the truth." Although the director was set on his star, producer David L. Wolper was furious because he hadn't yet had the chance to negotiate a fee.
Even Julie Dawn Cole (“Veruca Salt”) was fooled by the scene in which Willy limps out of his factory to greet the Golden Ticket winners. She mentions in the DVD commentary that she thought that Gene Wilder had injured his leg for real (and that the filming would have to be temporarily halted because of it). This resulted in her being just as stunned by Willy's somersault as the audience is. It took Wilder two weeks training with two stuntmen to get the flip right. Wilder's acting during the boat ride sequence was so convincing that it frightened some of the other actors, including Denise Nickerson (“Violet Beauregarde”). They thought that Wilder really was going mad from being in the tunnel.
The film’s soundtrack was released on a Paramount LP, and re-issued on an MCA CD in 1997. Leslie Bricusse, Anthony Newley, and Walter Scharf received an Oscar Nomination for “Best Music, Scoring Adaptation and Original Song Score.” They lost to John Williams for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF. Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Actor-Musical/Comedy, losing to Topol for FIDDLER.
Wilder’s third film in a row with an unwieldy title, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*But Were Afraid To Ask) took its title from a 1969 bestseller of the same name. The 1972 comedy had one of writer-director Woody Allen’s typical ensemble casts, which included Tony Randall, Lynn Redgrave, and Burt Reynolds. This time, Gene Wilder was the first choice for the role of “Doctor Ross,” a busy practitioner who is confronted by a shepherd in love with a sheep. (Reportedly, Laurence Olivier was Allen’s second choice for the part.) Of working with Allen, Wilder said "It was like walking on a Bergman set: people talking in whispers, serious looks on Woody's face. He communicates through silence". Atypically for an Allen film, there was an original score by Mundell Lowe, which was released by Kritzerland in 2009.
1974 was a big year for Wilder, beginning with the January release of RHINOCEROS, in which he re-teamed with Zero Mostel. RHINOCEROS was a filmization of Eugene Ionesco’s 1960 play (in which Mostel had starred), done by the American Film Theatre, as part of its subscription series of plays made into films. Wilder is “Stanley,” a bored accountant, and Mostel plays “John,” his portly but dapper friend. In this surreal story, Stanley begins to realize that everyone around him, even the pompous and condescending John, is changing into a rhinoceros. Tom O'Horgan directed the film, which had an unreleased score by Galt MacDermot (Broadway’s “Hair”).
Wilder co-starred with Cleavon Little in Mel Brooks’ 1974 western comedy BLAZING SADDLES. Wilder played “The Waco Kid,” who was the fastest gun in the West, before declining into alcoholism. Despite Wilder’s history with Brooks, he was not the first choice for the role. Wilder was originally offered the role of “Hedley Lamarr” (ultimately played by Harvey Korman) but didn't feel right for it, and told Mel Brooks that he wanted The Waco Kid instead. However, Brooks wanted someone older for The Waco Kid, someone like Dan Dailey. Dailey was sought for the role, but poor health and declining eyesight forced him to decline.
So, production began with Gig Young as The Waco Kid. On the first day of shooting, during the scene where the drunk Waco Kid hangs from a bunk asking if Bart is black, Young revealed that he really was indeed drunk (he had had an alcohol problem for years) and proceeded to undergo a physical collapse on set. Brooks shut down production for a day, and Gene Wilder flew cross country to take over the role. Young later sued Warner Bros. for $100,000 for breach of contract.
Wilder and Cleavon Little quickly became friends on set. Since Little was primarily a Broadway actor, Wilder would give him pointers for acting in front of the cameras. The film’s score, by John Morris, was released by La-La Land in 2008, and re-released by Silva Screen in 2015.
THE LITTLE PRINCE was a Lerner and Lowe musical brought to the screen by director Stanley Donen. In the story, “The Little Prince” (Steven Warner) appears before “The Pilot” (Richard Kiley) whose plane has crashed in the Sahara Desert. The Pilot deduces that The Little Prince has come from Asteroid B-612. At a later point in their conversations, The Little Prince tells The Pilot about “The Fox” (Gene Wilder), his second acquaintance on Earth who has transformed into a human.
Donna McKechnie (“The Rose”), Gene Wilder, and Bob Fosse (“The Snake”) were added to the cast shortly after production began. Alan Jay Lerner convinced his former collaborator, Frederick Loewe, to end his retirement to write the music for the film after he finished the screenplay. It was their first picture together since 1967’s CAMELOT. Angela Morley became the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Academy Award, when she was nominated for her orchestrations in the category of Best Music, Original Song Score/Adaptation for THE LITTLE PRINCE, a nomination shared with Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe, and conductor Douglas Gamley. The group lost to Nelson Riddle for THE GREAT GATSBY. The 1974 film’s soundtrack was released on an ABC Records LP, an expanded version of which was re-issued on CD by Decca in 2004.
Gene Wilder closed out 1974 with the 15 December premiere of Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Wilder, who portrayed "Dr. Frederick Frankenstein" in the film, had on his own accord, written an outline for a story that he called YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Several months later, Wilder’s agent, Mike Medavoy, expressed interest in Wilder making a film with fellow clients Peter Boyle and British actor Marty Feldman (who portrayed “The Monster” and “Igor,” respectively). When Wilder submitted his outlined idea to them, the actors were interested in having Mel Brooks on the project as director, although Brooks previously had directed only scripts he had written.
Wilder brought the idea to Brooks while he was working with Brooks on BLAZING SADDLES. Wilder and Brooks then collaborated on writing the story and screenplay. Columbia Pictures was involved during the writing of the script but would not agree to Mel Brooks’s budget of two million dollars during negotiations. The screenplay was then presented to 20th Century Fox, and in June 1974, Fox acquired the script. Wilder stated that the script took about six weeks to write, not including time off for two other projects, one of which was the completion of BLAZING SADDLES.
Although Brooks usually appeared in his own films, Wilder insisted that Brooks not appear in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. He felt that Brooks' appearance would ruin the illusion. Wilder insisted that he would only make the film if Brooks promised not to appear in it. Brooks didn't mind in the least, but did, however, make off-camera appearances as the howling wolf, Frederick's grandfather, and the shrieking cat. Gene Hackman (“Blindman”) learned about the film through his frequent tennis partner Wilder and requested a role because he wanted to try comedy.
Wilder and Brooks got into only one fight during the movie's production, but it was a big one with Mel throwing a huge temper tantrum, yelling and raging and eventually storming out of Gene's apartment (where the men had been working on the script). Roughly ten minutes later, Gene's phone rang. The caller was Mel, who had this to say: "WHO WAS THAT MADMAN YOU HAD IN YOUR HOUSE? I COULD HEAR THE YELLING ALL THE WAY OVER HERE. YOU SHOULD NEVER LET CRAZY PEOPLE INTO YOUR HOUSE - DON'T YOU KNOW THAT? THEY COULD BE DANGEROUS." That, as Gene later put it, was "Mel's way of apologizing".
After the first set of dailies, Brooks and Wilder asked director of photography Gerald Hirschfeld what he thought. Overall Hirschfeld was pleased, however Brooks was not, saying that the film should satirize the look of the old Universal horror films. Wilder came to the flabbergasted Hirschfeld's defense saying, "Mel, we never told him that that's what we wanted. He's replicating it but we want to poke fun at it." Hirschfeld made some changes and the next set of dailies was more successful.
Wilder constantly cracked up during takes. According to Cloris Leachman, "He killed every take [with his laughter] and nothing was done about it!" Shots would frequently have to be repeated as many as fifteen times before Wilder could finally summon a straight face.
It was Wilder who conceived the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene, while Brooks was resistant to it as a mere "conceit," and felt it would detract from the fidelity to Universal horror films in the rest of the film. Wilder recalls being "close to rage and tears" and argued for the scene before Brooks stopped him and said, "It's in!" When Wilder asked why he had changed his mind, Brooks said that since Wilder had fought for it then it would be the right thing to do. But it was only when he soon saw the musical number along with a howling audience that Brooks was finally confident about the sequence.
Throughout the shoot, Brooks would offer Wilder directing advice, knowing of his ambitions to someday direct. Wilder reminisced, "Mel would say, 'Do you know the trouble I'm in because I didn't shoot that close-up? Don't do that.' I would say, 'To whom are you talking?' 'You, when you're directing.'"
The film was a huge hit, grossing $86 million in the U.S. alone, on its $3 million budget. Fox would later sign both Gene Wilder and Brooks to five year contracts at the studio. John Morris’ score was released on an ABC Records LP, which was re-issued on CD in 1997 by One Way Records/MCA. Wilder and Brooks were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material. They lost to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for THE GODFATHER, PART II.
On 11 October 2007, Frankenstein, The New Mel Brooks Musical, opened on Broadway. The stage musical, based on Wilder and Brooks' story, was written by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, with music and lyrics by Brooks.
Wilder’s career took a toll on his marriage. In 1965, a few months after divorcing his first wife, Wilder began dating Mary Joan Schutz, a friend of his sister. Schutz had a daughter, Katharine, from a previous marriage. When Katharine started calling Wilder "Dad," he decided to do what he felt was "the right thing to do," marrying Schutz on October 27, 1967, and adopting Katharine that same year. Schutz and Wilder separated in 1974, with Katharine thinking that Wilder was having an affair with his YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN co-star, Madeline Kahn. After the divorce, he briefly dated his other Frankenstein co-star, Teri Garr. Wilder eventually became estranged from Katharine.
In 1975, Wilder turned to directing for the first time, with the comedy THE ADVENTURE OF SHERLOCK HOLMES’ SMARTER BROTHER. Wilder played that smarter brother, “Sigerson Holmes,” and wrote the screenplay as well. Producer Richard A. Roth had approached Wilder with the idea of making a comedy about Sherlock Holmes in October 1973. Although Wilder said that he had already been developing the concept for a year, he was unconvinced that he could parody a revered character for the length of a feature film. A week later, Wilder proposed a comedy about Sherlock Holmes’ “insanely jealous brother Sigi.” The name “Sigerson,” was an alias used by Sherlock Holmes during the period in which he was believed to have been killed by Professor Moriarty, in Arthur Conan Doyle's short story “The Adventure of the Empty House.”
Although he borrowed his character’s name from Conan Doyle, Wilder was unable to use content from Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series of novels. Even though they were considered public domain in the United States, they were still restricted by copyright protection in Europe. In Conan Doyle’s canon, Sherlock Holmes’ only sibling is his older brother Mycroft.
Wilder apparently directed the film out of necessity, after first asking Mel Brooks to direct. Brooks declined, stating that he would find it difficult to direct a screenplay in which he had had no involvement. Wilder said, "I couldn't get Mel to direct it." Brooks did say though that Wilder should go off and make this film, could call upon him day or night, and after making this movie, he better "come back home as soon as you're done!" Wilder did as instructed while conceding that the film was "a terrifying commitment."
For his supporting cast, Wilder pulled in Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, his YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN co-stars. The film was a modest success, grossing more than $20 million in the U.S. John Morris’ score has not had a release.
The 1976 action comedy SILVER STREAK was Wilder’s first film with four-time co-star Richard Pryor. The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who passed away only a few weeks ago.
Robert Vaughn received the script in the mail and loved it. He wanted to play art expert "Roger Devereau," but was dismayed to discover that Patrick McGoohan had already accepted the part. He contacted Arthur Hiller and discovered that the script was sent by mistake. He was invited to watch the production and became friends with Wilder. Wilder loved his part of publisher “George Caldwell” because it allowed him to do scenes which were fitting of Errol Flynn doing action or Cary Grant being romantic.
When the scene where Grover (Richard Pryor) puts the shoe polish on George's face to make him appear to be black was first filmed, the script had a white man walk in and believe that George was black. Richard Pryor was uncomfortable with the scene and felt it would be funnier if a black man walked in and is not fooled at all. Pryor asked Hiller for a re-shoot but Hiller refused, so Pryor walked off the set and refused to return to filming until the scene was changed. Hiller relented, and Pryor's idea was used for the final cut.
Wilder was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor - Motion Picture Musical or Comedy. He lost to Kris Kristofferson for A STAR IS BORN. Henry Mancini's score for the film was released by Intrada in 2002. That partially mono release was replaced by a full stereo release earlier this year.
Wilder took the jobs of writer, producer, director, and star for his next project, 1977’s THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER. It was the only film Wilder ever produced. Wilder also wrote a song for the film, "Ain't It Kinda Wonderful," sung by Harry Nilsson. Wilder conceived the idea for the film during late 1975 when he said to his friend, production designer Terence Marsh, that he would like to play Rudolph Valentino's double, with Valentino playing a silent secondary supporting role to his stand-in leading character. Marsh loved the concept, and Wilder proceeded to develop the picture.
The film’s end credits include the following acknowledgment: "A loving thank you from Gene Wilder to his friend, Federico Fellini, for encouragement at just the right time." Distributor 20th Century Fox "conceded" that THE WORLD’S GREATEST LOVER bore similarities to Fellini's 1952 Italian film THE WHITE SHEIK. When the studio approached Fellini about purchasing film rights, the director suggested a "discreet acknowledgement" instead of payment.
In the film, Wilder plays “Rudy Hickman,” who daydreams about being Rudolph Valentino at the bakery where he works. The onscreen cast credits include "Cousin Buddy," played by Cousin Buddy. Buddy was a pseudonym for Mark Silberman, the real-life cousin of Gene Wilder, who was born Jerome Silberman.
The film was made for $2.8 million and earned $10 million domestically in its first ten months of release. John Morris’ score was released on an RCA Records LP, but it has never been re-issued on CD.
Wilder was strictly credited in an acting role in 1979’s THE FRISCO KID, co-starring with Harrison Ford. The comedy told the story of rabbinical graduate “Avram Belinski” (Wilder), who is chosen to lead a new congregation in San Francisco, California. He must traverse across America’s wild west in 1850, where he encounters bank robber “Tommy Lillard” (Ford).
Wilder had turned down the starring role of “Avram Belinski” twice. After reading a revised second draft of the script in 1977, he accepted and worked closely with writers Michael Elias and Frank Shaw, without credit, to polish subsequent drafts. John Wayne was interested in playing “Tommy Lillard,” but eventually bowed out, most likely due to his declining health. Wilder was also approached about directing but turned down the opportunity. Robert Aldrich replaced Dick Richards as director during the final weeks before shooting began.
Although the overall film garnered poor to mixed reviews, Wilder’s performance received widespread praise, and several reviews, such as the Hollywood Reporter and Variety reviews, pointed out that the charming, new Western hero was his best film role to date. The film grossed a little over $9 million in the U.S. Frank DeVol’s score has not had a release.
One of Gene Wilder’s lesser known films is the 1980 sex comedy SUNDAY LOVERS, an Italian-French co-production that was shot primarily in Europe. The film is one of those anthology films. This one contains four stories, each from a different country (England, France, USA and Italy). Wilder wrote, directed, and stars in the American tale, entitled “Skippy.” Skippy (Wilder) is a patient at a Los Angeles mental institute. He is given a weekend pass as part of his re-integration into society. He spends the weekend with “Laurie” (Kathleen Quinlan), a young and attractive woman he met at a nightclub, and learns how to enjoy sex and romance once more. MGM/UA picked up the film for U.S. release in 1981. Manuel De Sica’s score for the film has not been released.
Wilder’s second outing with co-star Richard Pryor was in the 1980 prison comedy STIR CRAZY. Wilder plays “Skip Donahue,” a playwright and part time store detective. Pryor plays his friend, “Harry Monroe,” a waiter and out-of-work actor. Meeting at a New York City bar, the pair discovers that they both have been fired from their jobs.
Despite having a script by Bruce Jay Friedman, Pryor and Wilder ended up improvising many of their scenes together. Sidney Poitier directed the film. Tom Scott’s score and various songs appeared on a Posse Records soundtrack LP, which has never been reissued on CD. Gene Wilder sang one of the songs, “Crazy,” composed by Michael Masser and Randy Goodrum.
In a joint interview with Wilder, Pryor said: "Certain actors just naturally connect with each other. After the fun we had in SILVER STREAK, the only question was when . . . not if . . . we would put it together again." Wilder expressed it his own way: "Our instincts seem to coalesce. The difference, this time, is that STIR CRAZY is an out-and-out comedy while SILVER STREAK was a mixture of mystery, adventure and romance." Pryor interjected: "You might say that our Pryor picture was a ball but this one is Wilder." Wilder responded: "You might, but you'll say anything."
In a separate interview, Wilder said of the film: "It's a very funny concept. But what makes it work is a hard edge of reality, a sense of the frustration and the potential for violence, which exists in prison. It sets off the craziness Richard and I indulge in. The credit for that goes to Sidney Poitier who knows actors . . . loves actors . . . and cast the characters in this film as ingeniously as any director I've ever worked with."
The film took in about $100 million at the domestic box office, making it the most successful of the Wilder-Pryor films.
Sidney Poitier also directed Wilder’s next film, the 1982 comedy adventure HANKY PANKY. Wilder plays “Michael Jordan,” a Chicago architect visiting New York. Gilda Radner plays “Kate Hellman,” who breaks into Michael’s room, looking for a friend. The two are drawn into a web of government secrets when a girl carrying a mysterious package gets into a taxi with Michael. When she's later murdered, Michael becomes the chief suspect and goes on the run.
Sources differ as to whether Richard Pryor was ever attached to the film, which started life under the working title “Traces.” Daily Variety reported that Gilda Radner had declined offers to make films with John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd in order to star in HANKY PANKY. Tom Scott’s score for the film has not had a release.
HANKY PANKY grossed about $10 million at the box-office. Wilder said it was one of the worst movies that he had ever starred in. At the time of filming, Gilda Radner was married to guitarist G. E. Smith, but Wilder and she became inseparable friends. When the filming of HANKY PANKY ended, Wilder found himself missing Radner, so he called her. The relationship grew, and Radner eventually divorced Smith in 1982. She moved in with Wilder, and the couple married on September 14, 1984, in the south of France. It was Wilder's third marriage.
Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in the 1984 comedy THE WOMAN IN RED. Wilder plays “Theodore Pierce,” who while on his way to work one day spots “Charlotte” (Kelly Le Brock) - an incredibly beautiful Woman in Red. He really wants to meet her - but what would his wife (Judith Ivey) say? Through a mix-up, Teddy ends up making a date with the office wallflower “Ms. Milner” (Gilda Radner). The story was a take on the 1976 French sex comedy Un éléphant ça trompe énormément (aka Pardon mon affaire).
Wilder finally managed to work with his good friend Charles Grodin in a film. Grodin played Teddy’s best friend, “Buddy.” John Morris scored the film, but the most important part of the film’s music was the songs by Stevie Wonder, which featured performances by Dionne Warwick. But it was Wonder who sang the memorable tune "I Just Called to Say I Love You,” which won the Academy Award for Best Song. Motown Records released the film’s soundtrack, which had only Wonder’s songs and none of Morris’ background score.
THE WOMAN IN RED opened in August 1984, a month before Wilder and Gilda Radner wed. The film grossed more than $25 million in the U.S., making it Gene Wilder's most successful film as a director at the box office. Nevertheless, Wilder would direct only one more time.
Wilder directed his last film with 1986’s HAUNTED HONEYMOON, a star vehicle for him and wife Gilda Radner. Wilder also co-wrote the screenplay with Terence Marsh. In the film, “Larry Abbott” (Wilder) takes his fiancée (Radner) home to the castle where he grew up among his eccentric relatives.
Wilder received negative criticism from a friend who read 72 pages of his early script for the film. When the friend felt autobiographical aspects weighed down Wilder’s screenplay, Wilder backed away from the project, and 20th Century Fox Film Corp. president Sherry Lansing announced that the studio would no longer be attached. Wilder was erroneously quoted as being enamored with the title HAUNTED HONEYMOON, and wondered why it was not registered. The confusion may have been largely on the part of the press note writer, for it was later explained that Wilder would buy remake rights to MGM's 1940 comedy-mystery “Haunted Honeymoon” with Gilda Radner stepping into the role originated by Constance Cummings and Wilder taking the role played by Robert Montgomery.
Wilder incorporated several ideas as inspiration for his screenplay. His aim was to make a thirties-era film for 1986, using color while suggesting black and white-style photography. He was influenced by James Whale’s THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932), wherein travelers seek refuge in a gloomy house during a storm. Wilder also claimed that at a dinner with Dom DeLuise, the actor launched into an uncanny impersonation of Ethel Barrymore in THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE (1945). DeLuise’s spontaneous performance inspired Wilder to dream up “Aunt Kate,” the odd, 83-year-old matriarch from a bizarre family, who was played by DeLuise in the film.
For the house, filmmakers searched the American East Coast, then England and Scotland before settling on Knebworth House, located an hour away from London. The home, built in 1492, belonged to the Lytton family, and during the Victorian era, gargoyles, griffins, and slender towers were added to reflect the Gothic fashion of the day. They provided just the right atmosphere for the film. Although the mansion’s rooms would have worked, filmmakers chose to shoot interiors on soundstages in order to control flying harnesses, smoke, torrential rain, mist, and other complicated effects. Wilder and special effects consultant John Stears insisted on using the same techniques for visual effects that were used in the 1930s. This also helped to keep the budget down.
John Morris’ score for the film was released by La-La Land in 2010. In her 1989 book It's Always Something, Gilda Radner said of this film, "On July 26 , HAUNTED HONEYMOON opened nationwide. It was a bomb. One month of publicity and the movie was only in the theaters for a week - a box-office disaster". Radner was exaggerating somewhat. The film played for five weeks and grossed $8 million in the U.S.--not a disaster, but well under-performing Wilder’s previous films.
Wilder and Radner had wanted to have children, but Radner suffered a miscarriage during the filming of HAUNTED HONEYMOON, and doctors could not determine the problem. After experiencing severe fatigue and suffering from pain in her upper legs on the set, Radner sought medical treatment. Following a number of false diagnoses, she was found to have ovarian cancer in October 1986.
Thirteen years after SILVER STREAK, Arthur Hiller directed Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor for a second time in 1989's SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL. (It was the third pairing of the two actors, who had also worked in the interim for director Sidney Poitier in STIR CRAZY.) In this crime comedy, "Dave" (Wilder) is deaf, and "Wally" (Pryor) is blind. They witness a murder, but it was Dave who was looking at her, and Wally who was listening. Gene Wilder had originally turned the script down twice (due to its treatment of the deaf and the blind). He intended to do the same when offered it a third time, but his agent talked him into meeting with Tri-Star studio executives. They asked Wilder to re-write the script for himself and Richard Pryor, which he agreed to do.
Wilder went to the N.Y. League for the Hard of Hearing to study for his role. There he was assigned to speech pathologist Karen Webb, who would ultimately become his fourth wife. To prepare for his role, Pryor went to the Braille Institute in Los Angeles, where he was taught "cane technique" (the correct way a person who is blind uses a white cane) and visited classrooms to observe mannerisms of the blind students.
After attending a screening, upper management from the Braille Institute disavowed any connection to the film, turning down the offer of proceeds from opening night, which instead went to another nonprofit providing services to young blind people. Institute administrators objected to the R-rated film's language. The film grossed $47 million in the U.S. Stewart Copeland provided the film's unreleased score.
Since being diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, Gilda Radner had battled the disease, receiving chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. The disease finally went into remission, giving the couple a respite, during which time Wilder filmed SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL. By May 1989, the cancer returned and had metastasized. Radner died on May 20, 1989, eight days after the film opened. Wilder later stated, "I always thought she'd pull through.
In the romantic comedy FUNNY ABOUT LOVE, “Duffy Bergman” (Gene Wilder), a New York cartoonist, meets “Meg Lloyd” (Christine Lahti), a gourmet chef, and discovers the love of his life. They marry, but when Meg decides she wants to have a baby, complications to their relationship ensue, including Duffy having an affair with a Delta Gamma sorority girl, “Daphne” (Mary Stuart Masterson).
Although they portrayed lovers in this movie, Gene Wilder and Mary Stuart Masterson had a real-life age difference of about 33 years. Leonard Nimoy was chosen to direct this comedy about having babies and biological clocks because Nimoy had previously directed the family custody drama THE GOOD MOTHER (1988) and the hit parenthood comedy THREE MEN AND A BABY (1987). Miles Goodman’s score for the film has not been released. The 1990 film took in a little over $8 million at the U.S. box office.
ANOTHER YOU was the fourth and final film to co-star Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. It was also the final feature film appearance for Wilder. In their first two movies together, SILVER STREAK (1976) and STIR CRAZY (1980), Gene Wilder received top billing and Richard Pryor got second billing. However, in their final two movies together, this film and SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL (1989), Pryor got first billing with Wilder getting second. Pryor's physical deterioration from multiple sclerosis was clearly noticeable in ANOTHER YOU, and it was his last starring role.
In the film, “George” (Wilder) has been in a mental hospital for 3 years and is finally ready to go out into the real world again. “Eddie Dash” (Pryor), a dedicated con-man, is supposed to keep him out of trouble, but when people begin to recognize George as the missing millionaire “Abe,” Eddie wants to take advantage of the situation. ANOTHER YOU was originally set to take place in New York City. The movie prepped for two months and shot six weeks in New York. On the last night of location filming, director Peter Bogdanovich received a phone call from his agent at about midnight letting him know he was being replaced as director. After reviewing footage with replacement director Maurice Phillips, the producers determined that none of the New York footage was usable, and the script was rewritten to be shot entirely in Los Angeles.
Bogdanovich has said that he and Gene Wilder didn't get along because Bogdanovich devoted most of his time and energy to Richard Pryor, because of his MS. Though Bogdanovich claims that the film had only been green-lit because he had gotten Pryor involved in the first place (the studio not wanting Wilder alone), he believes Wilder successfully campaigned to have him replaced with another director.
The film’s score, by Charles Gross, has not been released. Budgeted at an estimated $17 million, the 1991 film grossed less than $3 million in the U.S., making it one of the least successful films of Wilder’s (or Pryor’s) career.
Following Gilda Radner's death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and treatment, helping found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda's Club, a support group to raise awareness of cancer that began in New York City and now has branches throughout the country.
While preparing for his role as a deaf man in SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL, Wilder met Karen Webb (née Boyer), who was a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. Webb coached him in lip reading. Following Gilda Radner's death, Wilder and Webb reconnected, and on September 8, 1991, they married. The two lived in Stamford, Connecticut, in the 1734 colonial home that he had shared with Radner.
In 1994, Wilder tried his hand at series television, starring in the situation comedy ”Something Wilder”. In the show, a fifty-something husband, “Gene Bergman” (Wilder), and his wife, “Annie” (Hillary Bailey Smith), who is in her thirties, are learning to cope with raising 4-year-old fraternal twin sons, “Sam” and “Gabe” (Carl Michael Lindner and Ian Bottiglieri).
The premiere of the show was delayed by a few weeks in the Fall of 1994, as a result of casting issues. Jennifer Grey had originally won the role of Annie Bergman, and shot the first pilot. Test audiences, however, disapproved of the age difference between her and Wilder. Grey was let go, but the search for her replacement proved more challenging than expected. Almost down to the wire, NBC was then able to snag acclaimed daytime soap actress and current “One Life to Live” star Hillary Bailey Smith in for the role.
After the series finally premiered on October 1, 1994, on Saturdays at 8/7c, lackluster ratings opposite CBS’s “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” prompted NBC to pull the show after only four episodes had aired. It was relaunched in December in a new Tuesday 8:30/7:30c slot. The series continued steadily for another three months against weak competition, but it did not do much better in the ratings. NBC dropped the show from its lineup again in March 1995, and officially canceled it not long after. Only 18 episodes were filmed.
In 1999, Gene Wilder had a part in the all-star Hallmark Entertainment television production of ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Tina Majorino played the lead role of “Alice,” and a number of well-known performers portrayed the eccentric characters whom Alice meets during the course of the story, including Ben Kingsley, Ken Dodd, Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Ustinov, Christopher Lloyd, Wilder, and Miranda Richardson.
Wilder had the role of the “Mock Turtle,” a weird type of turtle who often cries on remembering his moments at his school in the sea. He sings two songs to Alice: “The Lobster Quadrille” and “Beautiful Soup.” In Lewis Carroll’s book, the Mock Turtle is a cow in a turtle's shell, a pun on the 19th-century fad of mock turtle soup, which was cheap beef stew dressed up to resemble expensive turtle soup. In this version, the Mock Turtle is portrayed as a man in a turtle's shell, rendering the name less meaningful.
The original NBC airing of the film averaged a 14.8 household rating and a 22 percent audience share and was watched by 25.34 million viewers, ranking as the 6th highest rated program that week in terms of households and the most watched program that week in terms of total viewers. Richard Hartley’s score for the film was released by Varese Sarabande.
Wilder’s final major screen appearances were in the 1999 television movies “Murder in a Small Town” and “The Lady in Question.” Both of these were mystery movies for A&E TV that were co-written by Wilder, in which he played a theater director turned amateur detective. Three years later, Wilder guest-starred on two episodes of NBC's “Will & Grace,” winning a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor on a Comedy Series for his role as Mr. Stein, Will Truman's boss. It was the only acting award he ever won.
After Gene’s retirement, the Wilders spent most of their time painting watercolors, writing, and participating in charitable efforts. On March 1, 2005, Wilder released his highly personal memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, an account of his life covering everything from his childhood up to Gilda Radner's death. In a 2008 Turner Classic Movies special, “Role Model: Gene Wilder,” where Alec Baldwin interviewed Wilder about his career, Wilder said that he was basically retired from acting for good. "I don't like show business, I realized," he explained. "I like show, but I don't like the business."
When asked in a 2013 Time Out New York magazine interview whether he would act again if a suitable film project came his way, Wilder responded, "I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, 'Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.' But I don’t get anything like that."
Wilder died at the age of 83 on August 29, 2016, at home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer's disease.
Thanks, Gene for all of the laughs.