New Documentary, ‘Remembering Gene Wilder,’ Is A Rich Portrait Of An Unlikely Comedic Master

If not for fate stepping in, in the guise of actress Anne Bancroft, Gene Wilder might never have had a career. She was the lead in the 1963 Broadway production of Mother Courage And Her Children and Wilder was, as he put it, “miscast.” But it gave him the chance to meet Bancroft’s then-boyfriend Mel Brooks. “If hadn’t met Mel Brooks, I’d probably be a patient at some neuropsychiatric hospital making wallets,” he said.

Bancroft knew that Brooks was struggling with a rough draft of what he’d titled Springtime For Hitler and according to Brooks (a delightful interview subject in the documentary), Bancroft told him about “this weird, strange, very talented guy” who was also “naïve and innocent…: Leo Bloom.” Of their first meeting, Brooks recalled that he’d tapped into his inner Borscht Belt comedian, describing what he was wearing as not a pea coat because that was “too vulgar,” but rather, “my urine coat, and he really grabbed his belly and laughed. I immediately fell in love with him.”

In the new documentary Remembering Gene Wilder, director Ron Frank and writer Glenn Kirschbaum, with an assist from Wilder’s narration (from the audiobook of his memoir), take a straightforward approach to chronicling his life. A Midwesterner by birth, Jerome Silberman (“I wanted to be Wilder. I didn’t think Jerry Silberman had the right ring”) came from Milwaukee, the grandson of an Orthodox rabbi. Though Wilder went to Temple and observed holidays, his family wasn’t religious. His formative years were defined by his mother’s serious health issues. When he was just 8, his mother had her first heart attack and her doctor grabbed him and told Wilder, “Don’t ever argue with your mother. You might kill her.” He thought he should try to make her laugh and using his talent for accents, entertained her with impressions of people such as Sid Caesar.

Though Wilder’s strongest film work was mostly confined to the 70s, it was an incredible decade and that output alone is a reason to revisit his career. In addition to the magic he and Brooks created on The Producers and Young Frankenstein, Wilder left his indelible mark as Willy Wonka (no one has played the role better, in this writer’s opinion), and then stepped in last minute to play the “Waco Kid” in Blazing Saddles after Gig Young had to drop out. Though not nearly as fruitful of a relationship, Wilder also began a successful collaboration with Richard Pryor in the 70s.

I’m not sure if this is a flaw of the filmmakers or more a reflection of the importance for Wilder, but it was curious that there was no mention of any of his four wives until the final third of the movie. And only Gilda Radner and Wilder’s widow, Karen Boyer Wilder, whom he met while he was doing research on deafness for See No Evil, Hear No Evil, make it in at all. The documentary also doesn’t delve into his valuable efforts to promote cancer awareness and treatment in the wake of Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989, which would have been worth including.

I expect many younger moviegoers have never seen any of the films Wilder and Brooks made, and I hope Remembering Gene Wilder helps to rectify that serious deficit. For long-time fans, it will be a joy to hear Wilder in his own words, be regaled by Mel Brooks, Carol Kane, Peter Ostrum and others, and rediscover Wilder’s comedic legacy.

Remembering Gene Wilderis playing in limited theaters in the Twin Cities. Check online for listings.