The actor, writer and director has passed away after a battle with Alzheimer's. He was 83. One obit is here.
I first remember seeing Wilder in "The Producers," with Zero Mostel. My dad and I saw it together, and it was one of the most stunningly hilarious moments of my young life. Wilder was a major reason for that, playing adroitly opposite Zero Mostel, unhinged.
"Young Frankenstein." "Blazing Saddles." "Willy Wonka." Collaborating with Richard Pryor in "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy." A lot to celebrate. But there were misfires, too, such as "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and a '90s sitcom, "Something Wilder," that did not remotely live up to its title. After all, Wilder was at his best when he was at his wildest; "Silver Streak" is mostly a bland bore until Pryor arrives and forces Wilder to up his crazy game.
Below, from the vault, is a 1994 piece I wrote about "Something Wilder." As is clear, I prized the earlier Gene.
The idea of Gene Wilder doing a situation comedy has its appeal. Think of the manic Wilder of The Producers, Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, or even the coolly comic character in Blazing Saddles. Imagine, for that matter, the subtle actor of cult favorite Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx.
Then turn your TV to his new comedy series and wonder, whatever happened to Gene Wilder? And who is this bland man working under his name?
Something Wilder -- a misleading series title if ever there was one -- stars Wilder as Gene Bergman, an advertising man who has left the big city for Stockbridge, Mass., there to enjoy a low-pressure life with his new family: wife Annie and 4-year-old twins. And if at 59 Wilder seems a bit old to be playing a father, well, that's part of the premise, too, as Gene Bergman is in his 50s. He's not only dealing with fatherhood but with having other parents in his sons' preschool think he's a proud granddad.
The show blends the sensibility of the two creators, Lee Kalcheim and Barnett Kellman, with Wilder's own.
Kalcheim became a father at 50, Kellman at 40. Kellman said, "We find ourselves very amused and humbled and awed and excited by the challenges that face us everyday."
Wilder, meanwhile, has gone through a painful journey, including the illness and death of his wife, comedian Gilda Radner, which also has been a public one of sorts. He was at one point considering a series called Eligible Dentist about a recent widower, which both he and NBC found, as Wilder said, "too autobiographical." And his 1990 theatrical film, Funny About Love, "was the struggle of this couple who really loved each other, trying to have a baby, and how it can just tear you apart for good, and that did happen to me."
Although his life has resumed some order -- he remarried about three years ago -- Wilder still had things to work out.
"I took a long time when I wasn't working," he said, "and I found, I don't know, I would call it an awareness in life of the preciousness of each moment. If you could just really tell yourself that this is heaven on Earth. If you can just listen and hear and smell and taste that way, and feel."
Then Kellman and Kalcheim came to him with their series idea. "And I'm listening. Sounds -- enh -- sweet. It's nice. And they said, 'And if he'd had them at 26 or '7 or '8 years old, it wouldn't have been the same thing. You'd be busy worrying about paying the rent and getting an apartment, building your career or your future. But now the preciousness of life.'
"They said that and a bell went off.
"They said, 'He's aware of that all the time, and he'd rather be with those kids and his wife than do anything else.' "
Kellman said, "We've got a lot of opportunities for a very funny series." But at this point it sounds like they've got a great opportunity for a greeting card.
Putting the series together took some doing. The pilot originally had Jennifer Grey of Dirty Dancing fame as Annie. Kellman called her "a wonderful actress ... but not only a rather young actress; she's got a magic gene that makes her look even younger than she is." The part was recast with daytime star Hillary B. Smith, who can play Annie as mid-to-late 30s to Gene's fiftysomething, a sizable age difference but at least a plausible-looking one.
But the sitcom, at least in the episode made available for preview, is still an aimless family comedy that seems assembled from the pieces of other comedies. There are allusions to Gene's age, but there are also other more standard bits -- worries about preschool, busy parents trying to find time for sex, workplace banter, the trials of repairing an old house.
It almost could be Dave's World, only Wilder is even more laid-back than Harry Anderson's columnist Dave Barry.
Something Wilder is so understated, I wouldn't be surprised to see the players suppress yawns as they worked. I couldn't hold mine back as I watched.