Gene Wilder doc salutes comedy legend

By Stephen Silver, JTA

When Mel Brooks was filming The Producers, he recalled an executive approaching him and saying, “The curly-haired guy—he’s funny looking. Fire him.”

Brooks said he would fire the actor, but never intended to actually do it. And when The Producers came out, it became a classic in no small part because of that “curly-haired guy” — otherwise known as Gene Wilder.

That story is one of many retold about the actor in Remembering Gene Wilder, a new documentary about Wilder that Dayton’s JCC Film Fest will screen June 18.

The relationship between Wilder and Brooks is a key subject of the film, and for good reason: The two worked together on three classic films, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein, and were close friends. Brooks is interviewed at length in the documentary.

But according to the director of the film, it’s notable that Wilder’s Jewish comedic sensibilities came from a very different place than Brooks’ — they were subtler, more softspoken.

“His style was a little bit different; he wasn’t a borscht belt comedian, but he certainly learned from them,” the documentary’s director, Ron Frank, said. “Take Mel Brooks, a New York Jew through and through, and pair him with Gene Wilder, a Wisconsin Jew.”

Wilder grew up watching Jewish comedians like Danny Kaye and Jerry Lewis on TV in his Milwaukee home. But, Frank said, he himself “wasn’t a comedian — he was a comedy actor. He played it real. Most of his performances, he didn’t force the comedy, he didn’t force the humor, he was more or less himself, and that made it real and funnier.”

Gene Wilder entered the world with the given name Jerome Silberman, born in Milwaukee in 1933. His father was a first-generation Russian Jewish immigrant, and his mother was second-generation. He first developed his comedic gifts at a young age, when his mother became ill, and a doctor told young Gene to try to make her laugh.

“Jokes are in the genes when it comes to Jewish comedy,” Frank said. “I’d say that’s helped Jews survive, for centuries.”

Wilder soon headed to the Army, and from there, he went to the New York theatre scene and began his movie career in the late 1960s.

His movie debut was the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, in which he played a hostage of the titular couple. His second film, the following year, was Brooks’ The Producers.

He continued to star in popular movies throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, including the 1971 Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and a series of comedies with Richard Pryor. In the 1990s, he appeared in a pair of Will & Grace episodes, one of which won him an Emmy.

Wilder died in 2016, at the age of 83, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Frank said the documentary had been in the works since 2018.

Perhaps Wilder’s most Jewish role was in 1979’s The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays Rabbi Avram Belinski, who travels from Poland to the American West and meets an outlaw played by Harrison Ford. In that movie, Wilder’s character sports a black hat and a bushy beard, and chants a convincing rendition of the end of the weekday morning prayer service, with correct Hebrew pronunciation, while wearing tefillin and a prayer shawl.

In reality, Wilder’s Jewish identity was mostly secular. “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish,” Wilder told an interviewer in a 2005 book called Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. “But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”

Jenny Caplan, a scholar on American religion and popular culture at the University of Cincinnati and author of the 2023 book Funny, You Don’t Look Funny: Judaism and Humor from the Silent Generation to Millennials, told JTA, “Gene Wilder was a great example of a performer whose Jewishness was, at times, implicit, explicit, and invisible.”

She added, “In the hands of a writer and director like Mel Brooks, Wilder became the ideal blank Jewish canvas who could embody the sort of unspoken Jewish inflections and line readings that make characters like Leo Bloom, Frederick Frankenstein, and Jim in Blazing Saddles so hilariously Jewish to a Jewishly-literate audience, without anything that would mark the characters as obviously Jewish to a less Jewishly-literate viewer.”

The now 97-year-old Brooks is interviewed extensively in the film, sharing stories from his many years working with Wilder.

“I don’t think we could tell this story without him,” Frank said of Brooks. “It was just a delightful interview…Mel said, ‘I’ll give you a half an hour,’ and we ended up staying an hour. And he told stories that I wish I could put in the film, but it would probably be a three-hour movie.”

Frank added that Brooks, who was 95 when they sat with him, “remains an unbelievable storyteller, and he lived up to that reputation.”

Other interview subjects include the Jewish film historian Ben Mankiewicz, singer Harry Connick Jr., and actress Carol Kane. The archival footage extensively features Wilder with his third wife, Jewish comedy legend and Saturday Night Live original cast member Gilda Radner, who died of cancer in 1989. Frank said that the couple’s often unhappy marriage was one of the things he hadn’t known about Wilder coming into the project.

Frank is the director of the film, Glenn Kirschbaum is the writer, and it was executive-produced by David Knight and Julie Nimoy.

Nimoy is the daughter of the late Jewish Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy, and Frank had worked on an earlier documentary about him.

“The Nimoys and the Wilders were friends, and after Gene had passed, it was David and Julie’s idea to approach Karen, Gene’s widow, about (a film),” Frank said. The film focuses on Wilder’s entire life and career, including his battle with Alzheimer’s at the end of his life.

Frank said the film had some nontraditional funding sources, including what he termed “Alzheimer’s-related drug manufacturers and associations.”

Wilder’s own voice-over from his audiobook serves as narration for the film, and it contains a wealth of clips, whether from his movies, numerous talk show appearances, or home movies from throughout his life.

Frank noted that Jewish audiences in particular reacted very positively to the film when a test screening was held in Beverly Hills with Brooks in attendance, and that response continued into the Jewish film festival run.

“It appealed to them in all sorts of ways, and it’s not necessarily Jewish jokes…when they laugh really hard, you know it’s great when the laughs cover the following lines, that’s how long the laughs last. That’s what happened there,” Frank said.

He expects that to carry over to general audiences.

“People just love Gene, all across the country, Jewish or not Jewish,” he said.

JCC Film Fest and Dayton Hadassah will screen Remembering Gene Wilder, 10 a.m., Tuesday, June 18 at The Neon, 130 E. 5th St., Dayton. Tickets are $12 and include a 9:30 a.m. reception. Purchase tickets here.

To read the complete June 2024 Dayton Jewish Observer, click here.

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