Beyond 'Willy Wonka': The Legacy of Gene Wilder

Remembering the late actor's comedic genius outside of his most iconic role.

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Complex Original

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When famous figures like Gene Wilder pass away, it's easy to gravitate towards their most iconic works. For an era of children (and grown-ups) around the world, he'll always and forever be remembered as Willy Wonka, the eccentric chocolate manufacturer who gave kids Golden Tickets to his magical factory in hopes that one of them would take over for him. Hell, I tried to watch that film at least once a year, and have never fixed my eyes to watch whatever Johnny Depp did with the role. Gene Wilder is Willy Wonka, but he's also so much more than that.

Wilder's career goes back to 1961, starting off in a number of TV series and films before starring in Mel Stuart's Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971), which found him mixing his brilliant sense of humor with a more serious side (he's the one who purposefully wanted to walk out with a cane, lose his cane, and do a somersault as his grand entrance, because "from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth"). He played it perfectly and turned it into one of the film's most memorable moments. When one sees Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory before anything else Wilder's done, you don't even realize how perfect he was for the role of Willy Wonka until you take in some of his other roles—especially his comedic ones—which highlight just how madcap his humor was.

Three years after Willy Wonka, Wilder starred in two films from Mel Brooks, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. For many, these two roles were a deeper dive into the mind of Wilder. As "The Waco Kid," Wilder could tell gripping tales about committing all types of murder while drinking himself silly. While the film is a larger satire on the racism in Hollywood's Wild West, it was important to see Wilder holding onto the more adult tones in the humor from Willy Wonka in Blazing Saddles.

In Young Frankenstein, Wilder and Brooks linked up again in a hilarious black-and-white parody of the horror genre. In 2013, Wilder said that Young Frankenstein was his favorite film, and that he "was happier doing that film than any other." For lovers of Broadway (remember him from 1968's The Producers, another Mel Brooks film for which he received an Oscar nomination?), it's an extra delight to see Wilder (as Dr. "Fronkensteen") put on the Ritz.

If you wanted more of the mania that made some of your most favorite moments from Willy Wonka great, seeing him black out on his assistant Igor was the next natural step.

One of the more intriguing comedic duos caught on film were Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor. They first linked up on Blazing Saddles, which Pryor helped write, but their real first pairing was on 1976's Silver Streak, about a murder that takes place on a Chicago-bound train. That film received plenty of acclaim, and even earned Wilder a Golden Globe nomination, but for serious diggers, the must-see is their second film, the Sidney Poitier-directed box office smash Stir Crazy. The "crazy" in the title is necessary; the film took a hilarious look at what happens when two guys are mistakenly handed 125-year jail sentences in a maximum-security prison, which properly breaks them down. 

While critics weren't as over the moon for Stir Crazy as they were for Silver Streak, it was the bigger film overall. It turned a $10 million budget into a $101.3 million box office, being the third highest grossing film behind The Empire Strikes Back and 9 to 5. That gate also made Sidney Poitier the first African-American to direct a film that took in more than $100 million.

Sadly, Wilder's time in Hollywood decreased; after Stir Crazy, he only did about nine more movies (including two more films with Pryor: 1989's See No Evil, Hear No Evil and 1991's Another You), as well as a recurring role in Will & Grace before basically retiring from show business altogether. "I like show! I just don't like the business" is how he phrased it, and based on how he approached many of his characters, the show was always present in Wilder's performances.

Gene Wilder will most fondly be remembered as Willy Wonka—the man who could sing you a soothing lullaby that contains a splash of sinister intentions—but his genius goes far deeper than the demented candyman. He was without a doubt one of the most talented comedic actors to hit the stage or the screen, and while most of the world will be singing "the candy man can," it might be more appropriate to let Grossberger take us out one time for Gene Wilder.

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