Unforgettable Gene Wilder: Dive into the Hilarious Weirdness of a Comedy Legend!

The endearing documentary titled “Remembering Gene Wilder” offers a delightful insight into the life and career of the renowned comedic actor who passed away at 83 in 2016. Although not exhaustive, the documentary, directed and edited by Ron Frank and written by Glenn Kirschbaum, provides a captivating journey through the major points of Wilder’s life and career, reinforcing why this blue-eyed, electric-haired performer was so deeply cherished.

With a mixture of classic movie clips, historical footage and photos, and engaging interviews with Wilder’s friends and colleagues including Mel Brooks, Harry Connick Jr., Alan Alda, and Carol Kane, the film follows Wilder’s life from his childhood in Milwaukee to his final days dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. The film also includes Wilder’s own narration, taken from his 2005 memoir’s audiobook, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger”.

Born Jerry Silberman to a Russian Jewish family, Wilder, who changed his name early in his acting career, was advised as a child never to argue with his heart-impaired mother for fear of causing her harm. He instead sought to make her laugh, setting the stage for his future as a beloved comedic actor. Wilder’s cousin, Rochelle Pierce, offers a deeper understanding of the actor and his family.

The film then takes us to Wilder’s first performances on stage and the one that would forever change his life: his role in the 1963 Broadway production of “Mother Courage and her Children”, where he acted alongside Anne Bancroft. Bancroft recommended the talented Wilder to her boyfriend, Mel Brooks, for a role in a quirky screenplay he had written, titled “Springtime for Hitler”. This eventually led to Wilder’s casting as the neurotic accountant Leo Bloom in the re-titled satire, “The Producers”, marking the beginning of his stardom and his legendary partnership with Brooks.

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With anecdotes from Brooks and hilarious snippets from the 1967 comedy, the documentary details the making of Wilder’s Oscar-nominated performance alongside the unstoppable Zero Mostel. It also revisits some of Wilder’s most memorable on-screen moments, showcasing his comedic genius.

The documentary continues with the exploration of the celebrated Wilder-Brooks trio of comedy hits, including their iconic 1974 releases: the western spoof “Blazing Saddles”, where Wilder replaced Gig Young as the Waco Kid, and “Young Frankenstein”, a horror-comedy that starred Wilder, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks. Insightful anecdotes and observations from Brooks and “Frankenstein” producer Michael Gruskoff make this section especially entertaining.

The documentary doesn’t overlook Wilder’s early role in “Bonnie and Clyde”, his renowned portrayal in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, his amusing performance in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (*But Were Afraid to Ask)”, his directing endeavors, and his collaborations with another comedy legend, Richard Pryor. The discussion is enriched with contributions from Pryor’s daughter, Rain.

Wilder’s Jewish heritage is touched upon through his charming role as a Polish rabbi journeying to San Francisco in the 1979 comedy “The Frisco Kid”. Clips from the film, which was not a box-office success, showcase Wilder at his best; producer Mace Neufeld shares his memories of the production and Wilder’s significant contributions.

The documentary skips over Wilder’s early romantic life, which included two unsuccessful marriages, but focuses extensively on his later two happier marriages during the final part of the film.

The romance between Wilder and “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner, which began when they co-starred in the 1982 action-comedy “Hanky Panky”, is highlighted. They married and starred in two more films together: “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon”, both of which were written and directed by Wilder. However, their love story was cut short when Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and passed away in 1989. Despite the familiarity of their story, it continues to evoke deep emotions.

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Wilder’s subsequent marriage to Karen Webb, a supervisor at what was then called the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, is also warmly portrayed. They first met in 1988 when Wilder consulted her for his role as a deaf shopkeeper in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”. They reconnected after Radner’s death, married in 1991, and lived together in Connecticut until Wilder’s death. His widow provides heartfelt insights into their blissful relationship, during which Wilder gradually retired from acting to focus on writing and painting, before succumbing to dementia.

While fans might wish that Frank and Kirschbaum had included more information on Wilder’s acting roles in the 1990s, his decision to retire, and his last appearance on the small screen in the Emmy-winning guest role on “Will & Grace”, the film still serves as a joyful tribute to a unique movie star, and a poignant reminder of his absence.

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