Gene Wilder once said, “I’d be insane to lose my insanity”. And he was right. Best known for his role as Willy Wonka in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wilder left audiences in stitches. But lurking behind his crazy hair and impish grin was a life that brought more tears than laughs.
1. His Mother Was Very Ill
Poor little Jerome Silberman (Gene Wilder before he became famous) never stood a chance at a happy life. Born in 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he was the son of Jeanne and William J Silberman. And before he even hit double digits, calamity came knocking at his door when his mother came down with rheumatic fever. Her life would be in his hands.
2. His Jokes Were Lethal
If it hadn't been for his mother’s illness, Gene Wilder might never have cracked into show business. Or even cracked a joke. But an off-hand and probably sarcastic comment from his mother’s doctor forced him to sharpen his comedic chops. “Don't ever argue with your mother,” the doctor told the frightened eight-year-old, “you might kill her”.
From then, comedy became a matter of survival for Wilder.
3. He Was A Momma’s Boy
The doctor's grave warning (or cruel joke) left a deep impression on Wilder. Growing up, he lived in constant fear of upsetting his beloved mother. And, even though his father and older sister lived in the house, Wilder took it upon himself to look after her. This led to an unusually intense bond—like, borderline oedipal intense.
4. He Cuddled With His Mother
The only actual medical advice that the doctor provided Wilder was to press a brick, wrapped in cloth, into his mother’s chest to ease her pain. But the stone-cold brick was of little comfort. So, instead, Wilder used his head. The two would spend hours upon hours in that deeply intimate, if a little age-inappropriate, embrace.
But his mother wasn’t always so affectionate.
5. He Had A Dirty Mouth
Wilder entertained his mother by coming up with funny songs. During their tender embraces, he would put on different accents and silly voices to brighten her mood. But his mother only liked clean comedy. So, when he asked her one day what a certain swear word meant, she crammed a bar of soap into his mouth. Believe it or not, that wasn’t the worst thing he had to endure.
6. He Needed A Bigger Audience
Even though he’d been putting on private shows for his mother, Wilder only became interested in acting when, at 11, he saw his sister perform. Once he started taking acting lessons, however, it became apparent that Wilder needed a bigger audience. So his parents sent him away to the prestigious Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood.
He was in for a world of pain.
7. He Revealed His Darkest Secret
Decades later, in his 2006 autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, Wilder opened up about his terrible experience at Black-Foxe. While he and his parents believed that being in Hollywood would help him get a foot in the door of show business, they had no idea what horrors awaited him.
8. He Had No Friends
Black-Foxe was not the training ground that Wilder had hoped it would be. In fact, it was a devastating and emotionally scarring experience for the young man. The other boys tormented him mercilessly because, he believed, he was the only Jewish boy there.
Most shockingly of all, he even claimed that his roommate took advantage of him.
9. He Suffered In Silence
Wilder wrote home, telling his father all about what was happening to him at Black-Foxe. But his father was just as concerned about his mother’s delicate health as Wilder was and said nothing to her. Finally, after returning home on a visit with bruises all over his body, Wilder never went back to that sadistic school. And he found comfort in the strangest place.
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10. He Didn’t Believe In God
Wilder’s father was of Russian-Jewish descent. In keeping with the Jewish tradition, Wilder even had a Bar Mitzvah when he was 13 years old. But he didn’t always identify with his Jewish faith—or any faith for that matter. “I don't believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion,” he once said. Except for that one time he joined a cult.
11. Was A Cult Member
To help him cope with all of his traumas, Wilder’s aunt introduced him to Theosophy, a curious “quasi-religious, occult-obsessed movement”. Deeply troubled and emotionally vulnerable, Wilder fell head first into the religion with a zealous fervor. And he developed some particularly strange beliefs and even stranger habits.
12. He Was An Angel
Wilder found solace in his new cult-like community. His fellow Theosophists convinced him that he was, in fact, an angel and told him to avoid smoking so that he could receive messages from God. Of all of his strange beliefs at the time, however, the strangest was his belief in something that he ominously called “The Demon”.
13. He Felt Guilt
Underpinning Wilder’s beliefs in Theosophy was an all-consuming sense of guilt that he called “The Demon". “My mother was suffering every day of her life,” he recalled during an interview years later, “and what right did I have to be happy if she was suffering?” To overcome “The Demon,” Wilder turned to prayer. But not just any kind of prayer.
14. He Just Wanted Forgiveness
Before audiences were laughing with Wilder on the big screen, they were laughing at him in real life. In order to combat “The Demon," Wilder would spend hours at a time kneeling and muttering prayers to himself in public places like parks, streets, and on buses. “Forgive me, Lord,” he used to pray. “For what, I don’t know”. Then the unimaginable happened.
15. He Was In A Psych Ward
Wilder spent almost two years in a psychiatric ward. No, not as a patient. Ironically, he worked as an aide, helping to administer electroshock therapy. Sadly, however, he was the one in for a shock. In November of 1957, he received the devastating news that his dearly beloved mother had passed. But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
16. He Was A Late Bloomer
Sad as it was, as long as his mother was alive, so was “The Demon” that prevented him from being happy. But when his mother passed, Wilder was free. And he went buck “wilder”. At 23 years of age, he purchased his first contraceptive and slept with a girl for the first time. But, without his mother, he didn't know what love was.
17. His Honeymoon Was Short-Lived
Wilder met Mary Mercier shortly after his mother’s passing while studying acting at HB Studios. It didn’t take long for Wilder and Mercier to spark up a romance—and even less time to end it. The couple tied the knot it 1960 but, not long after saying "I do," Wilder began developing an active dislike for Mercier. This certainly wasn't a "happily ever after" situation.
18. He Made Love Like Clockwork
Following their nuptials, Wilder and Mercier spent more time apart than they did together. Wilder didn’t share many details about his marriage to Mercier except to say that they “made love every six months like clockwork”. Finally, in 1965, they ended their loveless marriage. And Wilder found his funny bone again.
19. He Met The Man Of His Dreams
Up until 1963, Wilder had considered himself to be a dramatic actor, keeping his comedic talents locked away in the closet. But then he met the man who would change his life. A chance encounter with Mel Brooks—himself just a dough-eyed noob in the show business industry at the time—would alter the trajectory of Wilder’s acting career.
20. He Was Desperate For Work
Brooks asked Wilder to star in his highly experimental and not-yet-funded script. It wasn’t the greatest opportunity but Wilder was nonetheless excited. He was also in no position to turn down a paying gig. During the first table reading, Wilder excused himself to go to a dental appointment.
In actuality, however, he walked straight to the unemployment office and collected the $55 he needed to put food on his table.
21. He Finally Made It As A Star
Brooks’ gamble on Wilder paid off. Their 1967 film, The Producers, became a cult comedy classic. And Wilder was its breakout star. He received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and, just like that, he went from starving artist to bonafide star. But most importantly, he learned to love again.
22. He Found Love Again
Shortly after his divorce from his first wife, Mercier, Wilder began dating his sister’s friend, Joan Schutz. It wasn’t until he had some money in the bank that he felt comfortable asking for Schutz’s hand in marriage. So, with the golden glow of an Oscar nomination to his name, Wilder tied the knot to Schutz. But his heart wasn’t really in it.
23. He Was Just Doing The Right Thing
Schutz had a daughter, Katherine, from a previous relationship and Wilder might have married her only out of a sense of responsibility. Once Katherine started calling Wilder “dad," he said that he felt compelled to “do the right thing”. In the end, their seven-year marriage collapsed into a scandal and heartbreak.
24. He Got Freaky On Frankenstein
While working on another classic with his frequent collaborator Mel Brooks, Wilder found himself in hot water with his wife. Schutz suspected that he was having an affair with his Young Frankenstein co-star, Madeline Kahn. Devastated by the betrayal, she filed for divorce and kicked Wilder out into the wild. She had every right to be suspicious.
25. He Had A Secret Lover
The sad truth is that Wilder likely had been cheating on his second wife. After all, it’s not entirely clear that he had wanted to marry her in the first place. However, in all likelihood, Wilder’s secret lover was not Kahn but another one of his Young Frankenstein co-stars.
Shortly after his divorce, he began dating Teri Garr. His true love, however, was yet to come.
26. He Was Born To Be Wonka
Wilder is most famous for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And there’s no question that he was born to play the role. It only took the film’s director, Mel Stuart, a few lines in an audition to offer Wilder the iconic role.
And he went out of his way to reimagine the famous character.
27. He Reimagined The Character
Wilder was almost entirely responsible for all of the most memorable aspects of Willy Wonka. He defined the character’s signature look, writing in notes to the costume department, “The hat is terrific, but making it two inches shorter would make it more special”.
He also summed up Wonka’s ethereal aura, writing that the character was “part of this world, part of another...something mysterious, yet undefined”. And he wanted to keep the crowd guessing.
28. He Wasn’t Supposed To Fall
Willy Wonka’s entrance in the 1971 film that sees him hobbling down a red carpet with a cane before pulling off a surprise somersault was not actually in the script. Wilder improvised that iconic entrance all on his own. “...from that time on,” he explained, “no one will know if Wonka is lying or telling the truth”.
We could say the same thing Wilder himself.
29. He Was Sweet As Chocolate
When he wasn’t terrifying his castmates in character, Wilder was actually quite gentle on set. He and the film’s child star, Peter Ostrum, used to have lunch together every day while filming. And because he was such a sweet guy, Wilder, and Ostrum would walk back to set, each chomping down on a delicious chocolate bar.
Soon, Wilder was onto bigger things.
30. He Prayed For Pryor
When Wilder read the script for 1976’s Silver Streak, he knew there was only one person who could star alongside him. The no-holds-barred stand-up comedian Richard Pryor. To everyone's surprise, Pryor agreed to make the film with Wilder. And, when it hit theaters, Wilder and Pryor became the first interracial comedy duo.
31. He And Pryor Had Chemistry
Wilder and Pryor had immediate chemistry on screen. They often played off of each other, throwing improv into their already hilarious scripts. “He said his first line, I said my first line, and then this other line comes out of him,” Wilder recalled about working on Silver Streaks. “I had no idea where it came from, but I didn’t question it. I just responded naturally”.
But their relationship wasn't always so smooth-sailing.
32. He Waited For Pryor
Despite their chemistry on camera, there was tension between Wilder and Pryor. Referring to Pryor’s behavior on the set of Stir Crazy, he called his comic co-star a “bad boy”. He talked about Pryor showing up “15 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, an hour and a half late” to set. Ever the professional, Wilder bit his tongue. And it paid off.
33. He Was One Half Of A Comedy Legend
Stir Crazy’s director, Sidney Poitier, knew that Wilder and Pryor were like oil and vinegar off set—they just didn’t mix. But once the cameras started rolling, it was comedy gold. Poitier reflected on the comedy duo, saying that they made “a particular kind of magic together” and called them “the funniest pair that's ever been on screen”.
And Wilder was about to find his off-screen match as well.
34. He Didn’t Like Pryor
To filmgoing audiences, Wilder and Pryor seemed like the best of friends. In reality, however, they could barely stand to be around each other. “We were never good friends, contrary to popular belief,” Wilder confessed decades later. “He [Pryor] was a pretty unpleasant person to be around during the time we worked together”.
35. He Fell In Love At First Sight
Wilder’s first two marriages had both been a disaster. He even went so far as to call his first wife “mean”—as in, “mean Mary Mercier”. But the minute he met the SNL comedian Gilda Radner, he knew that he had found his perfect match. As Radner put it, “...the first time I saw him my heart fluttered”. There was just one small problem.
36. He Was A Technicolor Hunk
When Wilder met Radner, she wasn’t exactly a free agent. The SNL star was stuck in a miserable marriage to guitarist GE Smith. But she couldn’t deny what she was feeling. Radner said that Wilder made her life go “from black and white to Technicolor”. Married or not, there was no denying their love for each other.
37. He Made Magic With Radner
Wilder met Radner on the set of the appropriately named film, Hanky Panky. And clearly, they reserved some of their hanky panky for themselves. Shortly after the film came out, Radner left her husband and fell straight into Wilder’s arms.
The comedic couple began making movies together but the real magic was (or maybe wasn’t) happening in their bedroom.
38. He Had A Little “Sparkle”
Less than three years after they met, Wilder and Radner got married in the south of France, and they quickly started their own little family. They adopted a beloved Yorkshire Terrier named “Sparkle” but what they really wanted was a child. So they got to work at making babies.
Despite their repeated efforts, however, something wasn’t working.
39. His Wife Couldn’t Carry To Term
Radner didn’t seem to have too much difficulty getting pregnant. Heaven knows Wilder was putting in his best effort. Sadly, however, Radner was having difficulty staying pregnant. To Wilder’s dismay, his dear wife kept experiencing miscarriages and mysterious bouts of illness.
The peals of laughter he was known for would soon turn to tears of sadness.
40. He Feared The Worst
Radner’s health problems must have reminded Wilder of his mother’s illness and his traumatic childhood. And, for nearly a year, he lived in fear of the worst. Then he got the news that would upend his life. The doctors figured out why Radner hadn’t been able to carry to term.
She had Stage IV ovarian cancer. Still, Wilder hoped for the best.
41. He Remained Positive
Despite his many traumas in life, Wilder somehow managed to remain positive. So, when he received the news about his wife’s diagnosis, he took it in stride and his resilience was inspiring. The aging actor convinced himself that Radner would “pull through” because he simply couldn’t imagine life without her. He was in for a tragic awakening.
42. He Screamed His Heart Out
Ultimately, Radner lost her battle with cancer, and her untimely demise devastated Wilder. “For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls,” Wilder lamented. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense'”. Heartbroken, Wilder lost his comedic touch and the few films he made after Radner’s passing were major flops.
43. He Was Finally Happy
Just when he thought that he would never find love again, Wilder, at last, managed to settle down. He met the lip-reading expert, Karen Webb, on the set of See No Evil, Hear No Evil and got married in 1991. Only months after that, Wilder retired from filmmaking and retreated from the public eye, calling those days the “happiest in his life”.
44. He Enjoyed Retirement
Wilder gave up on Hollywood, but Hollywood just couldn’t let him go. After retiring, he received multiple offers to appear in the box office hits Mrs Doubtfire, Stuart Little, and Big Daddy but he turned them all down. His only major appearance after retirement was a guest role on Will & Grace that netted him a Primetime Emmy Award.
He had his own stories to tell.
45. He Just Wanted To Put On A Show
Wilder spent his final years painting, writing novels, and shunning show business. On rare occasions, he recaptured the magic of his Willy Wonka days by performing readings of Roald Dahl’s children's book. But, ultimately, he never wanted to see a camera again. “I don’t like show business,” he said. “I like show, but I don’t like the business”.
46. He Was Too Ugly
Wilder collaborations with Mel Brooks are some of his most famous work. But there were times when even their relationship almost broke down. Such as the time Brooks offered Wilder the role of Ippolit in his 1970 film The Twelve Chairs.
When Wilder expressed his interest in the role of Ostap, Brooks turned him down because he didn’t think Wilder was attractive enough. These rifts soon grew to epic proportions.
47. He Was A Sheep Among Wolves
Once he started finding success on his own, Wilder began to distance himself from Brooks. In fact, in spite of the many classic films they made together, Wilder and Brooks were wildly different people. Reportedly, Wilder criticized Brooks' desire for fame and fortune.
For his part, Brooks famously called Wilder “a sheep surrounded by wolves” in Hollywood.
48. He Had A Psychotic Break
Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka was at times so convincing that he even fooled his own castmates. They were unaware that Wilder was supposed to sing during the infamously eerie tunnel scene. So, when the star broke out into his creepy song, everyone thought that he was having an actual psychotic episode. Apart from that, they loved him.
49. He Went Over The Rainbow
One of Wilder’s favorite songs was Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. As he lay on his bed, drifting between life and the hereafter, his music player, as if sensing the end was near, started playing the song. According to family and friends, Wilder then smiled and drifted off, somewhere over the rainbow.
50. He Was Forgetful
After Wilder passed, his wife made a shocking revelation. The final years of Wilder’s life had been fraught with illness. As he grew older, Wilder developed Alzheimer’s and he struggled to remember his career highlights. Once, at a party, he forgot the name of his hit film Young Frankenstein so, to jog his memory, he acted it out.
In fact, he never stopped acting.
51. He Wanted Everyone To Smile
Wilder’s adoring fans couldn’t understand why their beloved comedian had chosen to suffer in silence. The truth was that Wilder knew just how much his portrayal of Willy Wonka had brightened the world and he didn’t want to darken the memory. As his nephew explained, “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world”.