Before he achieved movie superstardom in the 1970s, Gene Wilder did Brecht on Broadway, Shaw in Louisville, and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” with Kirk Douglas on the Great White Way.
Wilder, who died Aug. 28 at the age of 83, also once pocketed $7,000 in an arbitration case waged by the Writers Guild of America West because of four little words: “A Mel Brooks Film.” Here are 12 intriguing facts from Wilder’s early career, as documented in the pages of Variety.
- Wilder’s first mention in Variety came in the March 7, 1961, edition, in a review of an Off Broadway play directed by Mark Rydell. “Roots” was described as a “seamy” English family drama with not much going for it, per our critic. But Wilder was “well-cast as the thick-skinned son.”
- 1963 was a busy year for Wilder. In March he co-starred with Anne Bancroft in a Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s political drama “Mother Courage and Her Children,” directed by Jerome Robbins. (Wilder met Bancroft’s future husband, Mel Brooks, during the production and the rest is showbiz history.) Come July he was on the boards in Louisville, Ky., opposite Carol Channing in George Bernard Shaw’s “The Millionairess.” By the end of the year he was playing the stuttering Billy on Broadway in the well-received adaptation of Ken Kesey’s “Cuckoo’s Nest,” toplined by Douglas.
- Wilder was part of the company that did a two-hour live staging of “Death of a Salesman” for CBS in April 1966. He was in good company, with Lee J. Cobb reprising his legendary stage performance as Willy Loman, with George Segal and James Farentino as his sons.
- By the end of 1966, Wilder landed his first major movie role, and it would prove to be quite a movie: “Bonnie and Clyde.” He had a bigger role in another 1967 movie that would make a mark on the biz, “The Producers,” and land Wilder his first Oscar nom.
- When “Bonnie and Clyde’s” bevy of Oscar noms were announced in February 1968, Wilder was up in Stockbridge, Mass., with the film’s director, Arthur Penn. The pair celebrated while prepping a Berkshire Theater Festival production of the Elaine May play “A Matter of Position.” Wilder would grab his first Oscar nom the following year for “The Producers.”
- After “Bonnie and Clyde,” Wilder was recruited by Bud Yorkin and Norman Lear (pre-“All in the Family”) to co-star with Donald Sutherland in the farce “Start the Revolution Without Me.”
- By the end of 1969, Wilder was rumored to be the top choice for the lead in the anticipated film rendition of Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint.” (The role went to Richard Benjamin.)
- On June 17, 1970, Wilder was among a group of actors in New York who mounted a one-day work stoppage to protest the Nixon administration’s bombing campaign in Cambodia. He was joined by his “Producers” co-star Zero Mostel as well as Warren Beatty, Elaine May, Ossie Davis, Milt Kamen, Hope Lange, Martin Balsam, Ruby Dee, Louise Lasser, Myrna Loy, Renee Taylor, and Linda Lavin.
- Wilder did a number of one-off TV projects in the early 1970s. Among the highlights was “Thursday’s Game,” a comedy with Bob Newhart and Cloris Leachman directed by James L. Brooks; and “The Scarecrow,” a PBS “Hollywood Television Theater” installment, featuring Blythe Danner, Nina Foch, Will Geer, and Norman Lloyd.
- A summer in the Hamptons in 1971 turned Wilder into an “ace tennis buff,” Variety reported that year.
- By 1975, Wilder’s movie career was exploding on the success of “Young Frankenstein” and the heat of “Blazing Saddles.” But one of his unions was still looking out for him. The Writers Guild of America West won a $10,000 judgment in arbitration against 20th Century Fox because Wilder’s co-writer credit on “Young Frankenstein” wasn’t included in certain advertisements, especially those that declared the pic to be “A Mel Brooks Film.” Wilder got to keep $7,000.
- Wilder made his directing debut with 1975’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.” By the time he was steering 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover,” he’d developed his own auteur theory. He explained it thusly in the Feb. 18, 1977, edition of Army Archerd’s “Just for Variety” column:
“Gene Wilder says he doesn’t want to have the title of ‘producer’ on ‘The World’s Greatest Lover,’ in which he stars, directs and also scripted. He wants the title to go to his production designer, Terence Marsh, and Chris Greenbury. ‘I don’t mind making those $180,000 decisions,’ says Wilder, ‘but I can’t stand $156 decisions.’”
|Gene Wilder Life and Career in Photos|