Gene Wilder is a comedic icon. The star of the 1971 movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory endeared him to the hearts of many for his spirited portrayal of the feature character. The world now mourns his passing at the age of 83 after a secret battle with Alzheimer’s.
Wilder was a actor who flourished in his comedic roles whether it was portraying mad scientist Victor Frankenstein in the Mel Brooks’ classic Young Frankenstein or opposite Cleavon Little in the uproarious western comedy Blazing Saddles as the Waco Kid. He counted comedian Richard Pryor among his lifelong friends and worked with him on many projects that included Stir Crazy, Silver Streak, Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Pryor and Wilder also worked together on Blazing Saddles. Pryor wrote many of the jokes and dialogue for the film.
Perhaps one of the best examples of their working friendship was when the pair were starring in the movie Silver Streak. The movie starred Wilder as a book publisher and Pryor as an escaped thief who helps him foil a murder plot during a cross country train trip. The pair decided to do their own stunts and hung from a speeding train suspended by wires. In an interview with famed film critic Roger Ebert in 1976, the pair recounted their experience. As the train sped along at 50 MPH Pryor recounts, “I was in the doorway, hanging onto Gene’s belt, while he’s leaning out of the train trying to get the coupling unfastened, and I’m thinking, ‘One slip of my foot and good-by.'”
Wilder stated, “Richie promised me that if I went, he went, too. If I fell off the train and was killed he would throw himself after me”. “Of course,” said Pryor, “they had me wired to the train”.”Ha!” said Wilder. “Your foot slips and I fall to my death and your parting words are, ‘Uh, sorry about the wires, man.'”
One of the funniest scenes occurs when the pair is trying to evade the cops in a train station. In a stroke of comedic genius, Wilder puts on blackface as Pryor attempts to teach him how to walk and talk like a Black man. The pair took a racist joke and made it a hilarious commentary on stereotypes. The chemistry of the pair worked so well that Wilder and Pryor were originally considered to do the movie Trading Places; however, it was during this time that Pryor set himself on fire during a drug binge and the roles went to Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.
Wilder died at his home yesterday surrounded by family. According to his son, as Wilder took his last breath, the song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” sung by Ella Fitzgerald was played.