Remembering the funny film legacy of the great Gene Wilder, who started the comedy revolution without us

By on August 30, 2016

We here at Night Flight HQ were saddened to learn of the death of Gene Wilder — the beloved comic actor and occasional director and screenwriter — who died Sunday night, August 28, 2016, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

We’re seeing quite an emotional outpouring about his passing, and we’re reading lots of tributes, and so we thought we’d take a look back at a few of the films that aren’t being mentioned as much, including one of our personal favorites, his multiple genius dual performances in Bud Yorkin’s frequently hilarious 1970 film Start The Revolution Without Me.

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Of course, it would be impossible to pay tribute to Wilder without acknowledging his most famous performances too, for his role as Dr. Frankenstein in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which he also co-wrote with Brooks, which earned him his second Academy Award nomination.

In 1970 — the same year that he appeared in several of his first comedic film roles, including the twin parts in Start The Revolution Without Me — Wilder told Time magazine: “My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria. After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.”

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Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933. He took to acting early in his life, starting at age twelve, when he began to take his first classes in the craft.

He briefly went to school in Los Angeles — the Black-Foxe Military Institute — before returning back to Milwaukee, where he finished high school.

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He then went to the University of Iowa to continue his studies, earning a B.A. in 1955, and after graduation traveled abroad, where he enrolled for more studies at the Old Vic Theater School in Bristol, where he also studied voice, gymnastics, judo and fencing — swordplay — which he would occasionally use in his future film roles.

Wilder came back to the United States and continued studying — with Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg — while he also taught fencing and worked other menial jobs in order to pay the bills.

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In 1959, at the age of 26, Wilder began using “Gene Wilder” as his professional acting name, later claiming it was because, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel, and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”

Wilder’s first big break came as “Frankie Bryant” in an Off Broadway play called Roots — no, not that one, this was Sir Arnold Wesker’s Roots, staged in November of 1961, which led to another stage role, in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover, which won him a Clarence Derwent Award as promising newcomer.

He also performed, in 1963, in a production of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage was seen by Mel Brooks (Brooks’s future wife, Anne Bancroft, was starring in the production), which led to a friendship with Brooks that would ultimately lead to some of his most popular film roles in Brooks’s films.

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Wilder continued working in New York and appeared in staged productions of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1963), followed up by Dynamite Tonight and The White House the following year, among other roles, and transitioned to television to work on numerous and varied types of shows and TV movies, before venturing out west to Hollywood, where he began to work in the movies.

His first memorable role was as the neurotic kidnap victim Eugene Grizzard, an undertaker taken away by the Clyde Barrow gang in Arthur Penn’s classic film Bonnie & Clyde, which splashed onto movie screens in 1967.

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He was just as neurotic — hysterically so — as accountant-turned-con man producer Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers, which earned him that first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, and it was his break-out role.

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We wanted to make sure you knew about his very next film, Bud Yorkin’s 1970 laugher Start The Revolution Without Me, because we really do think it showcases the zany talents that Wilder would possess in every role thereafter (he also displays his fencing abilities in the film).

Wilder and Donald Sutherland — another Night Flight fave — portray two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth by a doctor and mid-wife who can’t remember which set of newborn twins (fraternal, not identical) goes with which set of parents, the Count or the Commoner.

One set, Phillipe and Pierre DeSisi, grew up aristocratic and haughty, and become swashbucklers, known as the Corsican Brothers; the other set, Charles and Claude Coupé, grow up to be poor and dim-witted peasants. In a hilarious fluke of fate, they crisscross across classes. Wilder and Sutherland, of course, play both sets of brothers.

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The film takes place on the eve of the French Revolution, and both sets find themselves entangled in palace intrigues and shifting alliances while the revolution — which is depicted inaccurately as being led by the impoverished masses when its agreed that most of the leaders of the actual revolution were either middle or upper-class Frenchmen — rages on.

Wilder — who in 1968 had been talking to director Mike Nichols about appearing as “Milo Minderbenderg” in his upcoming film, Catch-22, based on the book by Joseph Heller — was contacted around the same time about appearing in Yorkin’s film by Norman Lear, the great executive producer who is mostly known for his work on some of TV’s best sitcoms in the 70s (“The Jeffersons,”“Good Times,”“All in the Family”) was producing, with his longtime collaborator Bud Yorkin aboard as the film’s director.

When Wilder learned that their historical farce Start The Revolution Without Me was going to be lensed in Czechoslovakia, which was at the time enjoying the political freedoms of the Prague Spring, and he’d be able to display his fencing skills, he took a good look at both screenplays and decided to go with Lear back to Europe instead of taking the part being offered to him for Nichols’ film.

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Unfortunately, or perhaps not, the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia as they were about to begin production and Start the Revolution Without Me would be filmed in Paris instead.

Sutherland — who had just come off his star-making role in Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H — is hilarious here, as are the rest of the cast, including character actor Hugh Griffith (How to Steal a Million, 1966) as Louis XVI and Billie Whitelaw (The Omen, 1976) as Marie Antoinette, called here, simply, “Marie.” (Griffith, who was in his late fifties at the time, is quite a bit older than the real Louis XVI, who died when he was just 38 years old).

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Orson Welles — who appears as the film’s narrator, appearing in opening and closing scenes — did his scenes for the film in just a few days of work, although the rest of the production of Start the Revolution Without Me took three months to film.

The often-hilarious spoof really deserves another look — or a first look, if you’ve never seen it — although the company distributing the film, Warner Brothers, weren’t too sure what to do with the film upon its release, as it was both a period piece and a farcical comedy, and so it was given a limited release and barely promoted.

Screenwriters Fred Freeman (mostly known today as a writer of episodes for beloved 1960s TV sitcoms like “Make Room for Daddy,” “Gilligan’s Island,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show,”“The Andy Griffith Show,” and “Bewitched”), and Larry Cohen (who is best known as a B-Movie auteur of horror and science fiction films, often containing a police procedural element, including episodes of another 70s fave show of ours, “Columbo”) were both nominated for a WGA Award for best comedy written directly for the screen, but that’s about it for awards.

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Reviewing Revolution, Pauline Kael noted: “Wilder has a fantastic shtick. He builds up a hysterical rage about nothing at all, upon an imaginary provocation, and it’s terribly funny. It’s the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect to work more than once, but it works each time and you begin to wait for it and hope for it—his self-generated neurasthenic rage is a parody of all the obscene bad temper in the world.”

Start the Revolution Without Me, however, was a hit on college campuses during the 1970s, where 16mm prints of the film were screened on movie nights and, one hopes, in World History classes, and by the early 80s, when it was given its initial VHS release (in 1982), the film was a celebrated cult hit.

Subsequently, the film would go on to influence the comedy writing of both Woody Allen — it’s hard to imagine what Allen’s 1975 film Love and Death would have been like had Yorkin’s film not preceded it by five years — and the Abrahams/Zucker/Zucker comedy writing/producing team, let along Mel Brooks himself, were obviously hugely influenced by the film, which helped to set the tone for a decade of American slapstick comedies, especially anything having to do with the French Revolution.

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Perhaps you’ve seen our recent Mel Brooks post, by contributor Marc Edward Heuck, in which we featured, in part, Brooks’s parody video for his hit single “It’s Good to Be the King,” which shows Brooks lampooning Louis XVI who sings about, as Marc writes, ” living large in the days before the French Revolution claimed his head.”

Hard to imagine this 1981 parody without the Yorkin/Lear film leading the way, and, of course, there’s always going to be that connection between Brooks and Wilder.

Start the Revolution Without Me, in fact, feels like a Mel Brooks movie minus Mel Brooks.

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Wilder followed up his hilarious dual roles in this film by appearing in yet another forgotten comedy, Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, also released in 1970.

In 1971, however, he would become the beloved character Willy Wonka in an adaptation of the children’s book by Roald Dahl, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which, unbelievable as it seems, was not an immediate hit but would go on to become a children’s — and adult’s — favorite over the years.

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In 1974, the Stanley Donen-directed musical version of The Little Prince featured Wilde as the fox, and then appeared as the doctor who falls in love with an Armenian sheep farmer’s sheep, ending up in bed with Daisy in what has to be the most hilarious comedic depiction of bestiality ever committed to celluloid, in the last segment of Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.

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We’re sure you’re either already familiar with Wilder’s performance in the Wild West parody Blazing Saddles — if not you should really make the effort to get familiar with one of the funniest comedies ever made.

It, too, was released in 1974, which turns out to have been a great year for comedies in general, and for Wilder too, as he also appeared in another parody film, Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, which turns Mary Shelley’s famous book about a monster right over on it’s flat, bolt-necked head.

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Wilder co-wrote the screenplay with Brooks, and the experience made him want to get more involved behind the scenes, with writing and directing, which led him to create his own comedies, among them 1975’s The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, which featured such Brooks regulars as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, and a hilarious performance by the great Dom DeLuise as a fruity, vaudeville ice-cream seller.

Another Night Flight fave was the 1979 movie The Frisco Kid, directed by Robert Aldrich, a Western comedy featuring Wilder as Avram Belinski, a Polish rabbi.

He returned to acting in projects that had not originated with him (or Brooks) when he began to appear with another much-loved American comedy hero, and a Night Flight favorite as well: Richard Pryor.

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Wilder and Pryor co-starred in a spate of films, some better than others, including 1976’s Silver Streak, which was a spoof of film thrillers set on trains, and 1980’s Stir Crazy, a huge box office success, grossing more than $100 million.

In between both of these, Wilder went back behind the camera for 1977’s The World’s Greatest Lover, which he also produced as well as directed, before returning for a couple more pairings with Pryor, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You, which didn’t exactly set theater screens on fire.

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It was while he was filming yet another film, Hanky Panky in 1982, when Wilder met “Saturday Night Live” actress and comedienne Gilda Radner, who became his third wife. Together, they co-starred in what was to be Wilder’s most successful directorial effort, The Woman in Red, which came out in 1984.

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The film was actually as remake of an obscure 1976 French film Pardon Mon Affaire, and is memorable for its inclusion of Steve Wonder’s soundtrack music (including an Oscar-winning hit song, “I Just Called to Say I Love You”), and for casting Kelly LeBrock in her first film role, in which she has a brief but awesome little nude scene.

Wilder declared that The Woman in Red and Young Frankenstein were his two best movies, the ones he could watch all the time in his life and still find something to laugh about in his performances.

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He and Gilda Radner would appear in Haunted Honeymoon, but then Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and Wilder took a break from all of his creative endeavors to devote himself to taking care of her, only occasionally working on projects after she died in 1989, spending much of his time raising cancer awareness in the wake of her death.

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Many of the tributes we’ve been seeing today and yesterday are talking about Radner being the love of Wilder’s life, and indeed that might be true, but it might also be a little unfair to not mention that he’d married again, in 1991, to Karen Boyer, and was still married to her when he passed yesterday, twenty-five years later.

Before Radner, Wilder was married twice before, to the actress-playwright Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz (aka Jo Ayers).

Wilder made occasional big and little screen appearances in the early 90s — appearing in his last film, Funny About Love with Richard Pryor, before turning his attention to television again, appearing in a failed series “Something Wilder” in ’94, and in a couple of TV movies, The Lady in Question (an A&E mystery) and Murder in a Small Town, both coming in 1999. He also appeared as the Mock Turtle in a 1999 NBC adaptation of Alice in Wonderland before making his last on-screen appearance in a story arc over a couple of episodes of the series “Will and Grace”, in 2002-03, winning an Emmy for his portrayal as “Mr. Stein.”

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Wilder would then turn his attention to the writing of his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, which was published in 2005, and then he turned to writing fiction, penning the 2007 novel My French Whore, 2008’s The Woman Who Wouldn’t a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love?, in 2010; and his final written work, the novella Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance, which was published in 2013. Wilder was interviewed by Alec Baldwin for the one-hour TCM documentary Role Model: Gene Wilder in 2008.

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Wilder — who had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989 — died on August 28, 2016, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement,

“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world. He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”

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Our contributor Marc Edward Heuck summed up our collective feelings quite nicely yesterday when he wrote that, “We are extremely sad to say goodbye, because we spent so much of our formative time in his company and don’t want it to end, but it is that very time that we spent with his great work that made him important and the memory meaningful. He lived his life full measure, on his own terms, and as his nephew testified, got to go out listening to a good song. The loss is hurtful, but the finish is peaceful, and the legacy is giant.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.