Yesterday (29th August) we saw the passing of one the screen’s great comedy actors, Gene Wilder. Wilder built a reputation of using his enormous nervous energy with moments of silence to convey what many comedians today cannot master. His career was not massive but each film played an important part in comic history, whether working with Mel Brooks and his partnership with Richard Pryor, to the films he wrote and directed.
As tribute, I have compiled a top ten of, what I consider, the best of his work, Rest In Peace, Mr Wilder. Your legacy will live forever.
10. See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)
Slated by the critics on its initial release, this is a film that has grown in reputation, mainly for Wilder and Richard Pryor’s comedy partnership. Playing a deaf man to Pryor’s blind man who both are the target after they witness a murder, the film isn’t as sharp the pair’s other outings, but they make the material far funnier than it is.
9. The Frisco Kid (1979)
A little known comedy western from 1979 in which Wilder plays a rabbi travelling through the west to get to San Francisco with the help of cowboy Harrison Ford. There’s enough decent gags to keep the comedy going but it’s Wilder’s naive performance that is a perfect foil to Ford’s tough guy.
8. Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex…But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)
Woody Allen’s episodic comedy based on a sex manual has Wilder in one of the funniest segments, playing a doctor asked to look at a farmer’s sheep, then finding himself falling in love with it. Although the subject matter maybe dubious, it’s Wilder’s subtle performance and Allen’s razor sharp, sometimes surreal script that makes this a comedy classic.
7. Bonnie And Clyde (1967)
Wilder’s first big screen performance, as a young married man who finds he and his wife kidnapped by the notorious gangsters. Even up against heavyweights Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway and Gene Hackman, Wilder made such an impression with his brief performance that this was the start of his meteoric rise to stardom.
6. The Producers (1968)
Mel Brooks’s outrageous black comedy may be famous for the Springtime For Hitler routine but it’s the partnership of Broadway producer Zero Mostel and nervous accountant Wilder where the film has the real heart. The scenes of these two men are often frantic, noisy but always constantly funny, as they search for a musical that will flop.
5. Blazing Saddles (1974)
Wilder’s second film with Mel Brooks is a comedy spoof western, in which a small town get a new black sheriff. Wilder’s Waco Kid, the fastest draw in the west is, again, a perfect comedy partner to Cleavton Little’s Bart. A giant in the comedy world, this was co-written by Wilder’s future comedy partner, Richard Pryor.
4. Stir Crazy (1980)
The second partnering of Wilder with Richard Pryor see the pair as best friends, thrown into jail for a robbery they didn’t commit. Crammed with hilarious set pieces, the pair use their comedy talents and naturalness together to make one of the 80’s best. Directed by Sidney Poitier.
3. Silver Streak (1976)
Set on a train, Wilder plays a publicist who becomes involved in a murder plot that leads him being thrown off the train and needing the assistance of car thief Richard Pryor. This comedy thriller has plenty of laughs and plenty of thrills and introduced the comedy pairing for the first time.
2. Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971)
If there was one character that Wilder really made his own, it was as Roald Dahl’s eccentric chocolate factory owner, in this magical family musical. Wilder transformed the role from page to screen in such a memorable way that even Johnny Depp couldn’t match it in the remake. He was The Candy Man!
1. Young Frankenstein (1974)
As co-writer along with director Mel Brooks, Wilder created a hilarious tribute to the classic Universal horror. Filmed in black and white and using the original sets from the 1930’s film, Wilder plays Victor Frankenstein (pronounced Frunkensteen) who inherits his grandfather’s legacy of creating life from the dead. With Marty Feldman almost stealing the film as Igor, this is full of quotable lines, brilliantly clever gags and a version of Putting On The Ritz that can outdo anything Fred Astaire could do.