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Gene Wilder was our great comedian of anxiety. His finest moments on screen were his portraits of men under strain, duress, stretched to their limits, about to explode, and exploding. Wilder, who has died at age 83, was a perennially young man caught in extreme situations, whether paired with Zero Mostel conning the theatrical world in The Producers, coping with the monster he created in Young Frankenstein, or a fugitive on the run with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak or Stir Crazy.
Wilder was a theatrically trained actor with a serious mien — his most sympatico director, Mel Brooks, discovered Wilder’s talent in a production of Brecht’s Mother Courage — who could bend and shape his seriousness into a brilliant comic deadpan. While Wilder’s most famous role is probably his work in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, his greatest work was done in more tense, fraught scenarios.
In The Producers, Wilder was a perfect foil for Mostel’s big, wittily overblown performance as producer Max Bialystock; but Wilder’s accountant, Leo Bloom, was a beautifully modulated portrayal of an honest, meticulous man who slowly, steadily sees his life spiraling out of his grasp. The way Wilder made his voice crack and quaver in moments of panic — this was the essence of his comic gifts.
Similarly, his Dr. Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein demonstrated something Wilder could do that few other actors are capable of: He acted as both a straight man (to actors as different as Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, and Cloris Leachman) and as a comic lead himself, capable of eliciting laughs merely by correcting anyone around him on the pronunciation of the name “Frankenstein.”
With his impeccable diction and cutting tenor voice, Wilder was a precise performer, delivering lines with a staccato briskness that he could use for funny effect. He did some of his best acting in lesser-known film comedies such as Start The Revolution Without Me (in a dual role) and Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, both released in 1970 as his star was on the rise.
The gentleness and generosity he displayed in the public romance he conducted with Gilda Radner in the 1980s suggested that much of the charm and intelligence Wilder projected on-screen were qualities he possessed in real life. In later years, following an illness and semi-retirement, Wilder wasn’t well-served by film or television, but his body of work stands as a testament to a decent man who understood how to portray people in indecent moods, stretched to breaking points: He was a controlled master of appearing on the verge of going out of control.
Watch: A Look Back at Gene Wilder’s Legendary Career