When you hear Gene Wilder’s name, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
Of course, it is probably the image of him in a purple suit and tall top hat. His performance as Willy Wonka in 1971 is a beloved classic that was huge at the time, and continues to be shared generation after generation.
Maybe you remember his hijinx alongside Richard Pryor, his hilarious adventures in Young Frankenstein, or sharing the spotlight with the equally funny Gilda Radner.
Besides what we do know about Gene, and the stage and screen images of him that we’ll carry with us in our hearts, here are ten things about him that you probably never knew. Not secrets, so much, but most haven’t looked behind the funny and goofy demeanor to see what lies behind those laughing eyes of his. As you celebrate the life of this legendary comedic actor, check out these little known tidbits to see another side of Gene Wilder.
10. Meet Jerome…
Gene Wilder wasn’t always Gene Wilder. He was born Jerome Silberman in 1933 to Russian Jewish immigrants in Wisconsin. He changed his name at age 26 as he began to gain fame and pursue his acting career.
Why Gene Wilder? Gene comes from his favorite Thomas Wolfe character, Eugene Gant. (Check out the novels Of Time and the River and Look Homeward, Angel) Wilder comes from his admiration of Thornton Wilder – a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and playwright.
9. Wilder’s First Inspiration
Wilder was first seduced by the acting bug when he watched his sister perform onstage. She was an acting student and he was just 11 years old.
Wilder’s interest was so great that he approached her teacher, begging for his own lessons. The teacher accepted Wilder as a student 2 years later, after Wilder’s persistence in pursuing his artistic passion.
8. The Funny Doctor
Before Wilder really got serious about acting, between ages 11 and 13, he got serious about being funny at age 8. His mother, Jeanne, was diagnosed with rheumatic fever. The prescription? Her doctor told Gene to “make her laugh.”
Gene Wilder’s mom must have seen his huge potential after that. Later on, she did some big things to improve his education…
7. The Straight and Narrow
Wilder’s mother had bigger hopes for him than what was transpiring in his Wisconsin hometown. She sent him off, as a teenager, to a Hollywood military school. This did not go well for Gene, who claimed he was being bullied and sexually assaulted.
He quickly came back home and continued studying acting locally, performing in front of an audience for the first time at age 15. The role? Balthasar in Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. He was drafted by the Army, but discharged just two years later.
6. Father of the Year Award
Wilder has a daughter, Katharine, however she is not his biological child. Gene Wilder was dating her mother when a very young Katharine began calling him “dad”. That’s when Gene decided to marry her mother, and, later adopt Katharine as his own.
A guy who can rock Willy Wonka and manage all those Oompa Loompa’s would be a perfect dad, right? Unfortunately, Wilder was never able to have biological children with any of his wives.
5. The Funny and Fabulous Gilda Radner
Every legendary man has to have his funny leading lady. Wilder was no different. He had four wives in his lifetime, however Gilda is the one we all remember and adore. They met on the set of Saturday Night Live in 1981.
Wilder and Radner became instant friends and quite inseparable – much to the dismay of Gilda’s then husband G.E. Smith (of G.E. Smith and the Saturday Night Live Band).
The eventually divorced, and Gilda and Gene married less than two years later. Gilda suffered several miscarriages during their marriage, which she later learned was due to ovarian cancer, which did take her life. Gene Wilder became a big advocate for research and treatment of ovarian cancer, founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center.
4. Lust in the Laboratory
Before there was Gilda, there was the mother of Gene’s adopted daughter, Mary. Mary divorced Gene after accusing him of having an affair with his on screen leading lady, Madeline Kahn, during the filming of Young Frankenstein.
Wilder actually began dating his other on screen leading lady, Teri Garr, after this. His daughter, Katharine, also left his life at this time. Though Young Frankenstein was huge for Wilder’s career, it seemed to turn his personal life upside down.
3. The Golden Rule
Wilder was raised Jewish by this Russian Jewish relatives. Publicly, he revealed that the main philosophy of his life was The Golden Rule.
In case you aren’t familiar, The Golden Rule is basically “treat others as you want to be treated.” It is because of this simple philosophy on life that Wilder considered himself a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist”.
2. There Would Be No Other
Gene Wilder auditioned for Willy Wonka, just like everyone else, but was offered the job on the spot. (Of course!) Who else could possibly fill those shoes? You’ll never view Willy Wonka the same after you read this:
Wilder would only take the role if…
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself… but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
The reason? “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” Genius!!
1. Continuing the Creative Genius
Once Wilder had hung up his acting career and began to slow down, his mind was still churning out gems. He became an author in 1998 with a collaboration with Gilda’s oncologist. He must have caught the writing bug then and there.
Later, he produced even more personal work with his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art in 2004. This was soon followed by his first and second novels. On a creative roll, he then published a collection of stories titled What Is This Thing Called Love? Almost immediately following that, his third and final novel was released in 2013.