2016 has been an especially tough year for the loss of beloved entertainers. Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Prince, Anton Yelchin — the list goes on and on. Earlier this week, we lost another truly remarkable talent and one of the most inspirational actors to bless us with his presence on the big screen with the passing of Gene Wilder.
He was one of the great comedic actors of our time, delivering some of the most iconic performances in the history of film, with his roles as Willy Wonka, Dr. Frankenstein, and Skip Donahue all immediately coming to mind. He was a living legend and his work will not soon be forgotten. Join us as we celebrate and remember the life that was as we look back at the 15 Greatest Gene Wilder Performances Of All Time.
15. Leo Bloom – The Producers
Gene Wilder would partner with a number of Hollywood’s most acclaimed comedic directors from the 1970s, but none would be as unforgettable as his partnership with writer/director Mel Brooks. The Producers was Mel Brooks’ directorial debut and his first collaboration with Wilder. In true Wilder & Brooks team-up fashion, the film satirizes Hollywood at its most indulgent. Wilder played the sleazy accountant Leo Bloom opposite Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock. The two discover a loophole in their accounting and believe they can cash in on producing a failed musical, deciding to co-produce a Nazi-centered play named Springtime With Hitler: A Gay Romp. In an ironic twist of fate, the production is wildly successful and the duo end up being arrested for fudging the cost of the production in their records.
Even when he was playing the crook, Gene Wilder was never the bad guy. He brought his comedic schtick to every role, including his turn as the morally conflicted producer. His finest moment of the film was when he finally caved and decided to give in to Max’s temptations of wealth and glory. Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks would go on to create other iconic classics, but we can’t forget that it all started with the little 1968 comedy, The Producers.
14. Eugene Grizzard – Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde marked Gene Wilder’s big screen debut, playing the titular dynamic-duo’s hostage, Eugene Grizzard. Wilder owned every second of his screen time by bringing his charisma-charged A-game. His brief appearance in the film would garner him the attention he needed to eventually be approached by Mel Brooks for the lead role in The Producers. Some people would call Eugene Grizzard a thankless part, but Wilder made it his very own.
Wilder’s performance delivered a certain charm that made for the perfect foil to the legendary Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. His brief time on the screen is only further evidence that there’s no such thing as a small role in Hollywood. All it takes is one special scene-stealing performance to launch a legendary career.
13. The Fox – The Little Prince
James Franco may have voiced the Fox in the latest Netflix adaptation of The Little Prince, but let’s not forget that Gene Wilder played the role first in the 1974 big screen musical. The Fox served as a playful character who would show the prince the meaning of love and the importance of his rose. Wilder’s work in family films would become defined by the cult success of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend this lesser known gem.
This rendition of The Little Prince gave Gene Wilder the chance to play out his love for Charlie Chaplin on the big screen. It also gave him the opportunity to sing and play to his strengths as a theater actor. It’s a truly unique musical fantasy with an outstanding soundtrack that never saw the box office love it deserved. If you want to see some of Wilder’s finest musical numbers, look no further than The Little Prince.
12. Sigerson Holmes – The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
Gene Wilder wasn’t just a movie star, as he also dabbled in writing, producing, and directing his own films. His directorial debut, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, was a fun little comedy cut from the same sort of meta-cloth as Young Frankenstein. Wilder stars as Sherlock’s master detective younger brother Sigerson, who has been overshadowed by the success of the elder Holmes’ career. After finding a clue, Sigerson resents Sherlock’s luck and attempts to take down the dastardly Professor Moriarty all on his own.
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother was a solid and enjoyable flick that highlighted Gene Wilder’s passion for the underdog. The film was filled with delightful nods to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels and inventive jokes poking fun at Douglas Wilmer’s famed 1960s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Both behind the camera and on the big screen, Gene Wilder’s charm and wit always shined through. The film was a box office hit, paving the way for Wilder to continue his career as a write/director with films like The Woman In Red, The World’s Greatest Lover, and Haunted Honeymoon.
11. Doctor Ross – Everything You Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask
Every successful actor seems like they have had at least one Woody Allen collaboration, and Gene Wilder’s was Everything You Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask. Wilder stars as Dr. Ross in the second of the film’s seven vignettes, What Is Sodomy? His time on screen as “just another ordinary GP” gives us enough to know that Dr. Ross was straight laced type of guy. That is until he falls in love with his patient’s sheep. The role demanded Monty Python–levels of absurdity, and audiences couldn’t get enough of it.
Wilder’s part in the movie was brief and showed us that he didn’t have to be the headlining star in order to steal the show. His brief couple of walk and talk doctor’s office scenes remain the the most memorable moments of the film to date. Wilder’s straight man routine paid off as the perfect set up for the vignette’s final twist.
10. George – Silver Streak
Gene Wilder was known for enjoying a good road trip movie. In Silver Streak, he plays an editor named George who takes a train ride from Los Angeles to Chicago to attend his sister’s wedding. In a sad twist of fate, he witnesses the murder of a world famous art professor, and is stuck thinking through ways to outsmart the killers for the rest of the cross country ride. The brilliant cat and mouse tension between George and the murderers makes for one of Wilder’s more memorable comedies.
There’s no funnier Wilder than the one who just happens to be is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Silver Streak was also Gene Wilder’s first on-screen collaboration with his friend Richard Pryor. The two quickly established an unforgettable chemistry that would go on to make them a duo of comedic legend. If you want to go all of the way back to see their genius, make sure to mark Silver Streak down as a must see.
9. Larry Abbot – Haunted Honeymoon
Gene Wilder enjoyed the comedy horror elements of Young Frankenstein so much that he eventually wrote and directed one of his very own, Haunted Honeymoon. The film stars Wilder as a performer named Larry in the Manhattan Mystery Theater. After proposing to his co-host Pearl, the two decide to get married in an old mansion Larry remembered from his childhood. The closer the the two get to the wedding date, however, the more the whole party starts to look like one of their crazy sci-fi radio shows.
This film feels like fun crossover between Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and one of the cheesier episodes of Goosebumps. It may not be one of Wilder’s most fondly remembered films, but it brings enough charm and fun to be recommended. Wilder may have had a schtick, but Haunted Honeymoon is the perfect example of his willingness to try fresh ideas that would normally be considered outside of his wheelhouse.
8. Skip Donahue – Stir Crazy
Gene Wilder had a thing for playing characters who just couldn’t catch a break, and his turn as Skip Donahue in Stir Crazy was no exception. In his second collaboration with Richard Pryor, Gene Wilder played a theater writer who decided to make the move to Los Angeles after being fired from his job in New York City. After an unlikely incident involving a chicken costume in Arizona, Skip and his friend Harry are convicted and given a 125 year sentence. The film plays like a classic fish out of water story as the two try to think their way out of a maximum security prison.
Stir Crazy is another example of Wilder being the perfect straight man. The whole incident with the chicken costumes is just plain bad luck. He’s given perfect foils with Craig T. Nelson, JoBeth Williams, and Jonathan Banks all pushing him closer to his comedic brink. Stir Crazy delivers laughs like you won’t believe, and despite some controversial elements, it’s still one of Wilder’s best movies to date.
7. Dave Lyons – See No Evil, Hear No Evil
See No Evil, Hear No Evil is yet another one of Wilder’s unforgettable collaborations with Richard Pryor, in which the late actor plays the deaf Dave Lyons opposite Pryor’s blind Wally Karew. After an unlikely meeting at a concession stand, the two realize they need each other to fully experience the lives they desire. Wilder reads lips for Pryor, who returns the favor by explaining the the importance of “invisible sounds”. The two get swept up in a robbery, and eventually end up working with the police to keep a pair of criminals from making off with a valuable coin.
The jokes are all based on one fairly straightforward gimmick, but Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor sell every second of it. See No Evil, Hear No Evil was their third collaboration, and it shows — their comedic chemistry could not have been more flawless. It’s not one of Wilder’s most renowned films, but with the headlining duo at the height of their powers, it’s well worth a watch.
6. Teddy Pierce – The Woman In Red
Gene Wilder continued his writing and directing career with an adaptation of the french comedy Pardon Mon Affaire — titled The Woman in Red. Wilder starred as a married ad man named Teddy Pierce who became obsessed with chasing a supermodel named Charlotte. Teddy did everything he could to woo Charlotte until she eventually invited him into her home.
The Woman In Red remains a romantic comedy classic that demonstrated just how boyish Gene Wilder could be. The film is at its best when Teddy swings for the fences with his wardrobe to charm his “dream girl” Charlotte. Wilder was not just a charmer on the screen, but he also delivered a romantic comedy demonstrating his interest in telling a more layered story about infatuation. He kept the tone fun and light while engaging the audience with a handful of next-level ideas. This film may not have quite the reputation as his Mel Brooks collaborations, but it’s more than worthy of his outstanding career.
5. George / Abe Fielding – Another You
Few knew at the time that 1991 would mark the final year of both Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor’s careers on the big screen. Wilder and Pryor both went on to retire after the release of Another You, with Pryor eventually passing away in 2005. The film was most appropriately about “two big liars” determined to get rich quick by stealing the identity of a famous millionaire. Like his role as Leo in The Producers, Wilder plays the less mischievous of the pair, George, a recently released patient from a mental hospital that was especially vulnerable to the schemes of Pryor’s Eddie Dash.
Gene Wilder’s role in Another You gave the actor one last great chance to explore the duality of his persona. In many ways, George was less culpable and more childlike, while his wealthier counterpart Abe Felding came across as a little more hard edged. Another You served as a great sendoff and appropriate homage to both actors’ careers.
4. Avram – The Frisco Kid
One of Gene Wilder’s great lesser-known characters was the Polish Rabbi with a mission, Avram Belinsky, in The Frisco Kid. This hidden gem stars Avram in his journey traveling from the east coast to his new congregation in San Francisco. On the way, he encounters a bank robber with a heart of gold played by none other than Harrison Ford. The duo become fast friends and work together against the Diggs Brothers to cross the U.S. frontier.
Gene Wilder’s pairing with Harrison Ford was the match made in heaven we didn’t even realize we needed, as the two displayed undeniable and heartfelt chemistry on the silver screen. Like many of Wilder’s best characters, Avram is often morally conflicted by his actions. At one point, he questions his faith after killing a man, and he often experiences doubt on his journey to San Francisco. His human reaction to violence made him more vulnerable and relatable than many of his more comedic roles.
3. Dr. Frankenstein -Young Frankenstein
Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein (FRONKENSTEEN!) was undoubtably one of the most over the top performances in Wilder’s career. Young Frankenstein was another collaboration with Mel Brooks that aimed to poke all sorts of fun at gothic literature and classic monster movies. The film dropped Wilder right into the middle of the mythical world filled with Transylvanian castles, an estranged companion Igor, and a number of monstrous creatures. We absolutely adored every second of it.
Wilder’s turn as the mad doctor hellbent on stepping out of his grandfather’s shadow is simply hysterical. What was especially notable about this role was the opportunity it gave the actor to explore an existing mythology in a number of meaningful ways. Fredrick had his grandfather’s legacy handed to him, but like many of the more ambitious viewers in the audience, he was not living the life he really wanted. Gene Wilder’s true talent was inspiring moviegoers, even when his characters were as silly as Fredrick Frankenstein.
2. Jim – Blazing Saddles
There’s a number of outlandish comedic characters on Wilder’s resume, but none delivered the laughs like Jim “The Waco Kid” from Blazing Saddles. The film brought together the comedic genius of Mel Brooks, writer Richard Pryor, and of course, Gene Wilder. It’s one of the great classics of American satire and it came to be defined by Sheriff Bart’s partner and recovering alcoholic, Jim.
Jim is the second half of one of the greatest buddy cop duos in the Hollywood’s history. The only thing that could match Jim’s quick sharpshooting was Bart’s half-baked schemes. Gene Wilder nearly was forced to turn down the part due to scheduling conflicts, and only took on the role as a favor for Mel Brooks. The rest may be history, but we’re still very glad he decided to join the movie. Without him, we never would have experienced the greatest gunslinger this side of the American Old West.
1. Willy Wonka – Willy Wonka And the Chocolate Factory
Gene Wilder played a number of unforgettable characters in his decades long career, but none would go on to be as iconic or inspirational as as his turn as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The character may have been outlandish and over the top in Robert Dahl’s novel, but that didn’t keep Wilder from bringing his more grounded optimism and dreamlike whimsy to audiences across the world.
Willy Wonka was a surprisingly layered character with shades of excitement, anger, and sadness all bleeding into Wilder’s performance. His musical numbers in the dreamy “Pure Imagination”, the horror of “Wondrous Boatride”, and the nonsensical “The Wonkamobile” are the stuff of legend, all highlighting the very best aspects of the character that have passed down through the generations. Willy Wonka represents the very best of our childhood dreams and imaginations, and without Gene Wilder, the character simply wouldn’t be complete.
Did we miss one of your favorite performances? Which of Gene Wilder’s characters will you never forget? Let us know in the comments.
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