He may have made his fame and fortune in comedies, but that eternally sad look in his eyes told you Gene Wilder was hardly your average funny man.
In fact the Hollywood star — who played a string of charmingly off-kilter characters in films such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, not to mention Willy Wonka in the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie And The Chocolate Factory — had enough troubles off-screen to occupy an army of Oompa Loompas.
For many, the joie-de-vivre he brought to the role of Wonka alone is enough to cement his status as one of his generation’s best-loved comic performers. But the clownish characters he played concealed a life battered by tragedy. A difficult childhood was poisoned by savage school bullying, sexual abuse and a paralyzing guilt over a terminally ill mother that propelled him to sexual abstinence and even into the arms of a religious sect.
Long before he was delighting millions on screen, Wilder was alarming rather smaller audiences who witnessed his obsession with praying in public — an addiction that would leave the angelic looking teenager kneeling for hours imploring God for forgiveness.
In later life, he endured two troubled marriages before finding a woman he adored, only to lose her to cancer. It was a disease that was also to strike him, although it was complications from Alzheimer’s that took the gentle genius. Childless despite four marriages, he died aged 83 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, at the weekend.
Born Jerry Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wilder was always prone to neuroses. This was hardly helped when the doctor treating his mother after her first heart attack warned him, aged only eight: ‘Don’t ever argue with your mother — you might kill her.’
As Wilder remarked later: ‘If he had said, ‘Please, Jerry, don’t ever argue with your mother,’ that’s one thing. But to add, ‘Or you’ll kill her’? That’s a shocking thing to say to a little boy.’
The warning led to painfully constrained early years in which Wilder was terrified of doing anything to upset his beloved mother, Jeanne.
Although he also lived with his older sister and father — a Jewish Russian immigrant who sold novelty toys — Wilder had an oddly intense relationship with his mother. Her doctor also advised him to soothe her discomfort by wrapping a brick in cloth and pressing it on her chest.
They soon discovered it was better if he used his head rather than a brick, and they would spend hours locked in this touchingly intimate position.
Although his mother had a fierce temper, once ramming a bar of soap in his mouth when he asked what ‘f***’ meant, he was devoted to her. He would sing funny songs and do silly voices to keep her entertained during her illness — a habit that had obvious consequences as he developed a passion to perform.
When he was 13, Wilder started acting lessons but in the same year his parents sent him to a tough military boarding school: Black-Foxe Military Academy in Los Angeles.
It was a shattering experience — he was bullied as the only Jewish pupil and beaten up relentlessly by older boys. As he later revealed in a frank memoir, he was also preyed upon sexually by his roommate.
He wrote to tell his father about the beatings but Silberman Sr didn’t want to alarm his wife — so said nothing. But when he came home with bruises on his arms and chest, he never returned to the school. The young Wilder felt that any feeling of happiness on his part was a betrayal not only of his mother but of anyone who was suffering. He found solace in religion, of a sort.
An aunt of his was a Theosophist — part of the quasi-religious, occult-obsessed movement set up by the Russian clairvoyant Madame Blavatsky — and she introduced him to fellow members.
They told him he was an angel and urged him, among other loopy beliefs, to avoid smoking as it interfered with the messages he was receiving from God.
His involvement with the Theosophists precipitated a sudden and intense obsession with praying which he developed when he was 17. The uncontrollable urge — which he dubbed ‘The Demon’ — gripped him for almost a decade and Wilder later diagnosed it as a sign of obsessive compulsive disorder.
He would spend hours at a time on his knees, pleading forgiveness and dredging up any offense, no matter how slight. He prayed out loud in parks, in crowded streets and on buses, murmuring so he would attract less attention.
His guilt over enjoying himself extended to his sex life. Wilder didn’t buy a condom until he was 23, a month after his mother died, losing his virginity shortly after.
Acting allowed him to escape The Demon. After graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in communication and theater arts, Wilder won a place to study acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England.
After that, he enrolled in drama school in New York. He met his first wife, an English actress named Mary Mercier, there and married her out of what he said was a misplaced sense of duty. Their five-year marriage ended in 1965.
‘We made love every six months like clockwork,’ said Wilder acidly. He married his second wife, Mary Joan Schutz, a friend of his sister, two years later and adopted her seven-year-old daughter, Katie. The couple broke up after seven years.
Wilder finally found happiness with his third wife, the extrovert comedy actress Gilda Radner, whom he met filming the 1982 film Hanky Panky. Radner was unhappily married at the time to guitarist G.E. Smith, but they became inseparable on set. They soon became an item, Radner splitting up with Smith and marrying Wilder in 1984.
Despite becoming the highest paid star in Hollywood, Wilder was kind and generous; a modest man fated to find himself surrounded by extreme characters.
Radner was certainly one of those. She poured her first vodka and lemonade at eight in the morning and kept on drinking.
She also suffered from severe bulimia, throwing up her food so often that the acid in her vomit started to rot her teeth.
They tried hard to have a baby but were never successful. Wilder suspected her desperation to conceive contributed to her ovarian cancer, which developed shortly after she had her fallopian tubes opened to increase her pregnancy chances. Wilder cared for her for three years but her death in 1989 left him heartbroken.
However, two years later he married Karen Webb, a lip-reading expert who had coached him to play a deaf man in the comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil. They were still together when he died and Wilder admitted his years with her were the happiest in his life.
Gilda Radner was far from the only tricky, complicated person with whom Wilder had to contend. His longtime film collaborator Mel Brooks was one —– the pair eventually drifting apart because Wilder was repelled by Brooks’ lust for money and fame.
W ilder’s most famous movie ‘buddy’, the comedy actor Richard Pryor, was certainly another. On-screen they established a matchless chemistry together in films such as Stir Crazy and Silver Streak.
But off screen, Pryor’s heavy drug use left the clean-living Wilder dismayed. ‘We were never good friends, contrary to popular belief,’ Wilder said. ‘He was a pretty unpleasant person to be around during the time we worked together.’
In 1991, Wilder set up a cancer research programme after Radner’s death. Just eight years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a blood cancer, but was in remission by 2005.
By then, he had long ago left the film business, ‘tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3D’ of today’s blockbusters.
To his eternal credit, the actor was never comfortable being the big star. He once bumped into the aging French screen star Simone Signoret in a Provence restaurant, but soon after they started chatting Wilder, overcome with nerves to be in the presence of a cinematic icon, had to run out and be sick.
Mel Brooks once told Wilder that in Hollywood he was like a sheep surrounded by wolves.
And as his family put it this week in a statement confirming his death, his ‘gentle, life-affirming personality’ held true until the end.