Gene Wilder's Sweet Mania Shines Brightest In These Memorable Scenes

Relive the actor's best roles.
Silver Screen Collection via Getty Images

Toward the end of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” the titular shepherd has lost hope. None of the golden-ticket holders have proven worthy heirs to his factory ― until the hero, Charlie, emerges at the 11th hour with a kind gesture. ”So shines a good deed in a weary world,” Wonka proclaims.

Gene Wilder, the man who gave life to Willy Wonka’s rich imagery, died Sunday at the age of 83, leaving behind a series of fantastic deeds in an increasingly weary world. His performances in “Wonka,” “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and a handful of other films, plays and television shows are certifiable classics. It helps that Wilder’s physical skill became tantamount to his screen presence. His characters are known for their expressive mania, carrying light and dark sides that emphasize the complicated nature of the events surrounding them. Wonka, for example, is both a soothsayer and a brute, hiding behind the facade of his institution’s steel arches. Popular culture adores his every wrinkle and, by extension, it adores Gene Wilder.

In the wake of Wilder’s death, it’s time to look back at the roles that made him a legend. Willy Wonka may be everyone’s go-to, but there are so many more, both on the list below and beyond it. Wilder’s work makes life a little less weary.

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1967)
Wilder's first big-screen appearance was in "Bonnie and Clyde," one of the 20th century's most influential films. His role, as one of the titular duo's hostages, is a brief prelude to Wilder's signature reaction shots. He could elicit laughs by merely twisting his face or cocking his head, as first evidenced here, when his girlfriend's age surprises him.
"The Producers" (1968)
In his second theatrical role, Wilder spoke for all of us when he hollered, "I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!" His turn as accountant Leo Bloom is filled with hysterics. Leo is constantly on the verge of a panic attack, hence why lunacy became Wilder's forte. By the time Leo is dashing around in front of the Lincoln Center fountains, Wilder's legacy is cemented. He would keep on dancing for the rest of his career, having earned an Oscar nomination for "The Producers."
"Start the Revolution Without Me" (1970)
The mere premise of "Start the Revolution Without Me" is a hoot: Two sets of twins switched at birth are reunited as chaos erupts on the eve of the French Revolution. Spoofing Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas, the movie is a bombastic cult favorite that tasks its lead stars with pulling off two characters each. By the time Wilder is feeding his plastic falcon, you know this role is distinctly him. No one delivers mindlessly withering slights with such matter-of-fact irreverence.
"Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" (1971)
What's left to say of Willy Wonka, the mysterious candyman originated by Roald Dahl and brought to cinematic life by Wilder? His performance is both eerie and sympathetic, as though Willy Wonka is a pastel-drenched optimist soiled by a lifetime of heartache. There's a hopefulness buried in Wonka's mania, heard in his dulcet intonations. As he says in "Pure Imagination," one of the movie's finest songs, "If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it."
"Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)" (1972)
The hallmark of Woody Allen's adaptation of David Reuben's famous sex manual is this scene: Wilder's silent reaction to a patient informing him he is in love with a sheep.
"Young Frankenstein" (1974)
For pitch-perfect comedic delivery, look to "Young Frankenstein," a gem that let Wilder cement his wide-eyed ease. His exchange with Marty Feldman over the pronunciations of Dr. Frankenstein's and Igor's names is the sort of tit-for-tat dialogue that requires expert cadence. Wilder's bamboozled reactions to the events in Mel Brooks' classic make you chuckle a little harder every time you see the movie, especially knowing that he co-wrote the madcap script with Brooks.
"Blazing Saddles" (1974)
Mel Brooks' beloved skewering of the racist Old West could open in theaters tomorrow and it would still be one of Hollywood's sharpest satires. Wilder's work in "Blazing Saddles" is tame, letting the eccentric supporting cast shine. Wilder's gentle, gloomy poise in the face of such zaniness becomes its own layer of humor. And the role's importance can't be understated: Wilder played one-half of an interracial buddy duo at a time when black actors almost always existed to buoy their white co-stars. His subtlety as the Waco Kid, then, carries a political brilliance that has helped to confirm the film's reputation as an all-time great.
"Alice in Wonderland" (1999)
This oft-forgotten TV adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" is weird and wild and far too under-appreciated. Get a load of this cast: Miranda Richardson plays the Queen of Hearts, Whoopi Goldberg is the Cheshire Cat and Martin Short hams it up as the Mad Hatter. Then there's Wilder, who plays the Mock Turtle, a teary tortoise who sings Lewis Carroll's surreal "Lobster Quadrille" to Alice. He bounces around with effervescent melancholy.
"Will & Grace" (2002)
One of Wilder's final roles was a two-episode arc on "Will & Grace." He popped up as Will's erratic boss during the height of the show's popularity. Wilder won an Emmy for the gig, partly, one could assume, because it encapsulates everything we'd come to expect from a Gene Wilder character: neurotic, odd, lovable, complicated. What a fine way to start bidding show business adieu.

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Gene Wilder & Gilda Radner

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