Gene Wilder

On this date in 1933, actor Gene Wilder (né Jerome Silberman) was born in Milwaukee to Jeanne (Baer) and William Silberman, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. As an adult, Wilder would call himself a “Jewish-Buddhist atheist.” His mother was stricken with rheumatic fever when Wilder was 8 and remained in ill health, which was said to give impetus to his comedic talents as he tried to cheer her up on doctor’s orders. He was involved in local and high school theater and studied communication and theater arts at the University of Iowa and the Stanislavski method in New York City while serving in the U.S. Army. He married Mary Mercier in 1960, the first of four wives.

After several roles on the stage (his stage name came from Gene Gant, the hero of Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, and playwright Thornton Wilder, whose “Our Town” was his favorite play), he made his movie debut in 1967 in “Bonnie and Clyde,” which led to a stellar career in the film industry and iconic, usually eccentric and neurotic roles, often in collaboration with Mel Brooks, in “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.” He later co-starred with Richard Pryor in four movies, the last of which, 1991’s “Another You,” was his final appearance in a feature film.

Wilder also produced and directed movies and wrote screenplays and several books. With oncologist Steven Piver, he wrote Gilda’s Disease (1998), which chronicled his life with his third wife and co-star Gilda Radner, who died in 1989 of ovarian cancer. After marrying speech pathologist Karen Boyer in 1991, he wrote a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, a collection of stories titled What Is This Thing Called Love? and three novels. He died of complications from Alzheimer’s on Aug. 29, 2016.

Freedom From Religion Foundation