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Gene Wilder unsure of his comic talent despite series of stellar roles

Published 30/08/2016

Publicity photo of Gene Wilder for film Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), also known as Two Times Two
Publicity photo of Gene Wilder for film Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), also known as Two Times Two
Actor Gene Wilder, known for his roles in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and many other films, died of complications from Alzheimers disease August 29, 2016 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83. London June 07: Actor Gene Wilder poses as he signs copies of his autobiography "Kiss Me Like A Stranger", at Waterstone's, Oxford Street on June 7, 2005 in London, England. The memoirs give an insight into Wilder's failed love life, his experiences of working with stars such as Richard Pryor and Woody Allen, his fight with, and victory over, cancer, and his time in the UK studying acting at the Bristol Old Vic. (Photo by MJ Kim/Getty Images)
FILE - AUGUST 29: Actor Gene Wilder, known for his roles in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and many other films, died of complications from Alzheimers disease August 29, 2016 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83. NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 05: Gene Wilder and his wife Karen Boyer watch as Shahar Peer of Israel takes on Anna Chakvetadze of Russia during day ten of the 2007 U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2007 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
File photo dated 02/10/1996 of Gene Wilder as Max Prince during rehearsals for Neil Simon's "Laughter of the 23rd Floor", at Queen's Theatre in London as the actor has died aged 83, his family said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday August 29, 2016. See PA story DEATH Wilder. Photo credit should read: PA Wire
File photo dated 07/06/2005 of actor Gene Wilder who has has died aged 83, his family said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday August 29, 2016. See PA story DEATH Wilder. Photo credit should read: Yui Mok/PA Wire
File photo dated 06/06/1996 of actor Gene Wilder who has has died aged 83, his family said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday August 29, 2016. See PA story DEATH Wilder. Photo credit should read: John Stillwell/PA Wire
File photo dated 06/06/2005 of actor Gene Wilder who has has died aged 83, his family said. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Issue date: Monday August 29, 2016. See PA story DEATH Wilder. Photo credit should read: Ian West/PA Wire
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 07, 2013 shows actor Gene Wilder watching Serbian tennis player Novak Djokovic play against Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka during their 2013 US Open men's semifinals match at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. Hollywood star Gene Wilder, who delighted audiences with his comic turns in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and several Mel Brooks classics including "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers," died August 29, 2016 at age 83, Variety magazine reported. The weekly trade journal quoted his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman as saying the actor died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Connecticut. / AFP PHOTO / EMMANUEL DUNANDEMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 7, 1984 shows US actor and director Gene Wilder poses with his wife Gilda Radner, during the 10th American Film Festival of Deauville. Hollywood star Gene Wilder, who delighted audiences with his comic turns in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and several Mel Brooks classics including "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers," died August 29, 2016 at age 83, Variety magazine reported. The weekly trade journal quoted his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman as saying the actor died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Connecticut. / AFP PHOTO / Mychele DANIAUMYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images
FILE - AUGUST 29: Actor Gene Wilder, known for his roles in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and many other films, died of complications from Alzheimers disease August 29, 2016 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83. NEW YORK - MARCH 15: Gene Wilder signs a copy of his new book "My French Whore" at Barnes & Noble, March 15, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images)
FILE - In this March 16, 2005 file photo, actor Gene Wilder speaks about his life and career at Boston University in Boston. Wilder, who starred in such film classics as "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Young Frankenstein" has died. He was 83. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
FILE - AUGUST 29: Actor Gene Wilder, known for his roles in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and many other films, died of complications from Alzheimers disease August 29, 2016 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83. WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA - MARCH 17: Actor and author Gene Wilder autographs copies of his new book 'The Woman Who Wouldn't' at Barnes & Noble Bookstore at The Grove on March 17, 2008 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)
(FILES) This file photo taken on September 7, 1984 shows US actor and director Gene Wilder of the movie "The Woman in Red" during the 10th American Film Festival of Deauville. Hollywood star Gene Wilder, who delighted audiences with his comic turns in "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" and several Mel Brooks classics including "Blazing Saddles" and "The Producers," died August 29, 2016 at age 83, Variety magazine reported. The weekly trade journal quoted his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman as saying the actor died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Connecticut. / AFP PHOTO / Mychele DANIAUMYCHELE DANIAU/AFP/Getty Images

Gene Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but millions knew him from his work in the movies, especially his collaborations with Mel Brooks.

With his unkempt hair and big eyes, Wilder was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in Young Frankenstein or bilking Broadway in The Producers.

Brooks would call him "God's perfect prey, the victim in all of us".

But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozing gunslinger in Blazing Saddles or the charming candy man in the children's favourite Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.

Wilder was close friends with Richard Pryor and their contrasting personas - Wilder uptight, Pryor loose - were ideal for comedy. They co-starred in four films: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You.

But Wilder would insist in a 2013 interview that he was no comedian, saying it was the biggest misconception about him.

"What a comic, what a funny guy, all that stuff! And I'm not. I'm really not. Except in a comedy in films," Wilder said.

"But I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but nothing special. But when people see me in a movie and it's funny then they stop and say things to me about 'how funny you were'. But I don't think I'm that funny. I think I can be in the movies."

Born Jerome Silberman in Wisconsin in 1933, Wilder was the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant father and his mother was of Polish descent.

When he was six, Wilder's mother suffered a heart attack that left her a semi-invalid. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her, the first indication of his future career.

He attended a military school in Hollywood but became interested in acting in his teens.

He later moved to England to study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

After returning to America he did a stint in the Army before moving to Pennsylvania where he pursued his dream of acting.

Supporting himself with odd jobs such as driving a limo, he landed his first professional acting job in a production of Twelfth Night.

He was married twice in the 60s then tied the knot with Gilda Radner in 1964.

She died of ovarian cancer in May 1989 and Wilder went on to establish a Los Angeles cancer detection centre in her name.

He made his television debut in 1962 and was then cast as a hostage in the 1967 film Bonnie And Clyde.

However, Wilder's first significant role was in the 1968 film The Producers.

The movie was the first he worked on with Brooks, and started a long working relationship that included Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

It also earned him his first Oscar nomination.

Wilder worked mostly in television in recent years. He made a number of appearances on Will & Grace - including one which earned him an Emmy Award for outstanding guest actor - and had a starring role in the short-lived sitcom Something Wilder.

In 2015, he was among the voices in the animated The Yo Gabba Gabba! Movie 2.

However, in later life, the actor became disillusioned with the limelight and turned to writing, releasing three novels and a collection of stories.

In 2013, asked if he would act again, he said he would only do it if "something wonderful" was offered to him.

Wilder is survived by his fourth wife, Karen, whom he married in 1991, and his daughter from a previous marriage, Katherine, from whom he was estranged.

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