Happy Birthday, Gene Wilder!

Gene Wilder has earned the right to a second act of quiet straightforwardness, having already given us a lifetime's worth of laughs.
06/11/2008 12:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Today is Gene Wilder's 73rd birthday. One of America's greatest comic actors, he hasn't done much in front of the cameras in the past decade. He's been writing, living relatively peacefully with a wife he adores, occasionally appearing in a feature article somewhere. He beat cancer a couple years ago after fighting it for years. He has aged as he acted, as he lived, as he pratfalled: gracefully.

Of course, Wilder isn't his real name. He was born Jerome Silberman. He named himself after Thornton Wilder, but it might as well have been another; he shares his sophisticated silliness and profoundly serious levity with Billy Wilder's best movies. Unlike his early directors Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, he wasn't a stand-up comic or a Borsht Belt cutup. Leo Bloom, Frederic Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka were hilarious, but even in their neuroses they were elegant.

His first leading role came in Mel Brooks's The Producers as Leo Bloom, a young, conscience-striken accountant who found joy in life after being benevolently corrupted by Zero Mostel's Max Bialystok. It was Brooks's debut and greatest movie, and Wilder's performance is surprisingly affecting, by turns manic ("I'm in pain! And I'm wet! And I'm still hysterical!") and moving, as when he and Max dance by the fountains at Lincoln Center to the tune of Gershwin. ("I want everything I've ever seen in the movies!")

His secret weapon was his complete sincerity, which made it possible for audiences to believe he had fallen in love with a sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), possible to trust the mercurial and winkingly dangerous Willy Wonka, or to sympathize with the ego-mad Frankenstein, who goes from a life of trying to live down his name to an attempt to live up to it by creating life and teaching it to tapdance. He committed to his roles, never mocked them. No matter how silly his characters were, they always believed in themselves.

That sincerity came pouring out in his recent memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, a large portion of which was devoted to his relationship with the brilliant, troubled Gilda Radner, his third wife, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Radner was one of the great comic actresses of all time, but a difficult, unbalanced, insecure woman. After she died, he founded Gilda's Club, a cancer support group, and partially retired from acting; he has only appeared in two big-screen movies since her death. His memoir suggests he may have started comedy as a way to please his invalid mother, and he seems to have largely dispensed with it following the death of another woman he cared for.

Wilder's golden movie touch evaporated in the 1980's, as he made a number of movies with Richard Pryor and more with Gilda, but few worth remembering. (Pryor's movie career is a shame worth a treatise; one of the most gifted comedians ever, he never made a single great movie.) In 1995, he appeared in a short-lived, little-loved sitcom called Something Wilder. Since then, he has made a few cameos on sitcoms and a few made for TV movies. Mostly he's written books, his memoir and a couple novels, both period pieces, which (like his memoir) have names suggesting relationships with women: My French Whore and The Woman Who Wouldn't.

Nowadays, he's not going out of his way to make other people laugh. A Washington Post interviewer writes, "There's hardly a yuk in Kiss Me, and throughout a 45-minute interview, he says nothing intended to amuse." But that's alright. A septuagenarian owes his audience nothing more. He has earned the right to a second act of quiet straightforwardness, having already given us a lifetime's worth of laughs, and the right to a happy home life after surviving a wife lost to cancer and then facing it himself.

Like many of the great Jewish actors and comedians -- and many other Jews not blessed with talent -- Wilder invested his characters with the neuroses he himself felt, but he did so humanely. At the height of his powers, he mastered the screen like few before or since. His great movies will last forever, a gentle smile on his face as he extends his arms to the audience, wearing a purple velvet suit.

Happy birthday, Gene. May you live to 120.