The Man With The Wilder Style
It was one of my favourite film trivia questions. After ‘The producers’ Gene Wilder made another movie with Zero Mostel. What was it?
The answer was ‘Rhinoceros’ by Ionesco, the filmed version of the surrealist play in which people turn into animals. I saw it and it was terrible. But it was the fact that he worked again with the brilliant but legendarily insecure and apparently impossible Zero Mostel that amazed me.
But there must have been something about Gene, because he kept reteaming with his stars. He teamed with Mel Brooks, and made four comedies with the great Richard Pryor, one in which they played a blind man and a deaf man solving a murder. The train-set ‘Silver Streak’ was written by Colin Higgins, the chap who wrote ‘Harold and Maude’. And he worked with a brilliant great female comic, Madeline Kahn, twice also, in ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother’ (‘Sherlock? Sheer luck!’). And he married SNL’s Gilda Radnor, one of the funniest comedians ever, and made films with her too – then watched as she died tragically at just 42 – plus he made the proper Willy Wonka, not the rubbish one. Jeez!
What made this frizzy-haired blue-eyed blond Jewish baby-faced comic actor so brilliant was his eccentric acting style, in which he switched from insecure, innocent and nervous to eerily placid, then frenziedly angry or hysterical, one after the other.
I first saw him in ‘The Producers’ and tried to name a company ‘Bialystok & Bloom’, only to find there already was one. (This was long before anyone in the UK had ever heard of the film). I had never seen such an odd acting range. Of course Hollywood struggled to figure out what to do with him. They even tried him as a romantic lead, but he was always best against a foil.
I love the moment in ‘Silver Streak’ when he’s held up at gunpoint only to instantly lose his temper and snatch away the gun with a yell of ‘Give me that!’, and his disturbingly blank stares and unreassuring mutters at parents frightened for the fate of their children in ‘Willy Wonka’.
But for me he’ll always be associated with ‘The Producers’. He became a weird kind of surrogate for me as we copied Leo and Max to form our own odd company, the Creative Partnership. If and when Hollywood finally gets its mojo back, Gene (born Jerome Silberman) is the kind of unexpected talent they’ll need.