“Time is a precious thing. Never waste it”
– Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder)
Jerome Silberman was born on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to William J. and Jeanne (Baer) Silberman. He would later adopt “Gene Wilder” as his professional name explaining, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”
Wilder first became interested in acting at age 8, when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and the doctor told him to “try and make her laugh.” Around the age of 11, he saw his sister, who was studying acting, performing onstage, and eventually asked her teacher if he could become his student at the age of 13. Wilder studied with him for two years.
His mother felt that her son’s potential was not being fully realized in Wisconsin, she sent him to Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood, he would later write that his stay there was quite unpleasant, primarily because he was the only Jewish boy in the school. Wilder returned home and became more involved with his local theatre community. At age 15, he performed for the first time in front of a paying audience, Balthazar in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Wilder graduated from Washington High School in Milwaukee in 1951.
Wilder made his screen debut in the TV-series Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1962. His first film role was portraying a hostage in the 1967 motion picture Bonnie and Clyde. His first major role was as Leopold Bloom in the 1968 film The Producers for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This was the first in a series of collaborations with writer/director Mel Brooks, including 1974’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which Wilder co-wrote. Wilder is probably best known for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and for his four films with Richard Pryor: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You. Wilder directed and wrote several of his own films, including The Woman in Red. He would also write a number of books starting with a a memoir in 2005, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art; a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love?; and the novel My French Whore.
Wilder met his first wife, Mary Mercier, while studying at the HB Studio in New York. Although the couple had not been together long, they married on July 22, 1960. They spent long periods of time apart, eventually divorcing in 1965. A few months later, 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 after seven years of marriage. Wilder met Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner on August 13, 1981, while filming Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky. Radner was married to guitarist G. E. Smith at the time, but Wilder and she became fast 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. Radner would eventually be diagnosed with ovarian cancer and pass away on May 20, 1989.
Following 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. Wilder had previously met Karen Webb (née Boyer), who was a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. Webb had coached him in lip reading for a film he was in. Following Gilda Radner’s death, they reconnected, and on September 8, 1991, they married.
Wilder died at the age of 83 on August 29, 2016, at his home in Connecticut from complications of Alzheimer’s disease.