Gene Wilder, an actor whose work with comics Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor made him one of the most popular stars of the 1970s and whose memorable portrayals of neurotics and eccentrics included the hilariously mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein,” died Aug. 28 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.
A nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, confirmed the death in a statement that said the cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma nearly two decades ago.
Wilder grew up in the Midwest, trained at the Old Vic in England and brought classical stage technique to Brooks’s outlandish humor. “My job was to make him more subtle,” Wilder once said. “His job was to make me more broad.”
But sometimes Wilder brought important comic ideas to Brooks. While filming “Young Frankenstein” (1974), a tribute to Universal Studios horror movies of the 1930s, Wilder urged that he and Peter Boyle, who was playing the monster, tap-dance a duet to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Brooks objected to the musical number until a test audience reacted with howls of laughter.
In another era, Wilder’s Harpo Marx-like mop of golden hair, his slight physique and his soft, almost lisping voice might have hindered a career as a leading man. But Brooks once said he found Wilder “a natural . . . an Everyman with all the vulnerability showing. One day God said, ‘Let there be prey,’ and he created pigeons, rabbits, lambs and Gene Wilder.”
Brooks channeled the actor’s wide-ranging comic talents into many types of roles. For the theatrical farce “The Producers” (1968), Wilder played an ultra-nervous accountant who becomes hysterical when his baby-blue security blanket is taken away. It was a portrayal film critic Pauline Kael called “almost a shtick of genius.”
In the western spoof “Blazing Saddles” (1974), Wilder played the other extreme as the Waco Kid, an alcoholic gunman whose draw is so quick that he disarms eight attackers in one scene without the camera detecting any expression or movement on his part.
After an early Broadway career, Wilder debuted onscreen in a brief role as a kidnapped undertaker in “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967).
He soon teamed with Brooks, and Wilder’s comic skills tended to overshadow his work as a director, writer and championship fencer, all of which he displayed in “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975).
His other well-known portrayals included the candymaker who gleefully watches greedy children meet their just deserts in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971) and a doctor lovestruck with a sheep named Daisy in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask” (1972).
The second role was widely acknowledged as an exercise in brilliant deadpan comedy. Keeping in character, Wilder later joked that the part was made easier because of “very attractive things about this sheep, the little black hairs around each eye.”
With Pryor, Wilder made several buddy comedies that broke ground in their interracial teaming, including “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Stir Crazy” (1980). Wilder pushed for casting Pryor to deflect cries of racism in light of controversial material, such as the scene in “Silver Streak” in which Wilder applies shoe polish to his face and tries to “act black.”
In 2005, he told the London Independent that he and Pryor were never close socially, and he was not aware of the comedian’s drug use. “Until he set fire to himself, when he was freebasing,” he said. “Then I knew.”
Wilder’s career faded in the 1980s after making a series of undistinguished films, several co-starring his third wife, “Saturday Night Live” alumna Gilda Radner. After her death from ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder co-wrote a book about ovarian cancer and started a cancer support network.
Jerome Silberman was born in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933. He later took his stage name from the playwright Thornton Wilder. His first name came from the main character of Thomas Wolfe’s novel “Look Homeward, Angel,” although Wilder later wrote in a memoir that his psychoanalyst suggested another reason: His mother’s name was Jeanne.
As a boy, Wilder was warned by a doctor that if he directed anger toward his emotionally fragile mother, it might kill her. He spent hours trying to make her laugh, and from there he developed an interest in theater. Along with acting classes, he took up fencing and won the all-school fencing championship during a year spent at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England. He also enrolled at the Actors Studio in New York, where he studied the “Method” style that asks performers to draw on personal memories in forming a character.
After Army service in a psychiatric ward, Wilder picked up his theatrical career and appeared in several Broadway productions.
His small role in Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” in 1963 proved crucial to his career. Also in the show was actor Anne Bancroft, whose then-boyfriend Brooks was a TV comedy writer struggling with a film script.
“Mel said to me, ‘I’ve got a great idea for a movie, and you’re the only one I want for this part,’ ” Wilder told the New York Times in 1967. “Three years went by, and I didn’t hear from him, not a message, not a phone call. Then I was in [the Broadway comedy] ‘Luv,’ and one matinee day I got a knock on my door, and he said, ‘You didn’t think I forgot, did you?’ “
The film was “The Producers,” and the supporting role brought Wilder an Academy Award nomination. His only other Oscar nomination was for co-writing “Young Frankenstein.”
Wilder made no more movie appearances after 1991, although he periodically acted on television. He won a 2003 Emmy Award for his guest role on the sitcom “Will & Grace,” playing a quick-to-anger boss.
Mostly, he devoted himself to painting and writing, including the memoir “Kiss Me Like a Stranger” (2005).
His marriages to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz ended in divorce. Survivors include his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, a speech therapist who taught him to lip-read for his role as a deaf man in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989).