'He wasn't a comedian, but a comedy actor. He played it real'

‘Remembering Gene Wilder’ documentary salutes a Jewish comedy legend

Recently opened in NY and LA with a further rollout in the coming weeks, the film examines the comedic actor’s relationship with Mel Brooks – and what set their two styles apart

Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder are shown in New York City in June 1982. (AP Photo)
Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder are shown in New York City in June 1982. (AP Photo)

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, following a run last year on the Jewish film festival circuit, has opened in New York with a further rollout ahead in the coming weeks.

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’s — they were subtler and more softspoken.

“His style was a little bit different; he wasn’t a Borscht belt comedian, but he certainly learned from them,” Ron Frank told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “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 theater 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’s “The Producers.”

Director Ron Frank arrives at the opening night premiere of ‘Remembering Gene Wilder’ at The Castro Theatre on July 20, 2023, in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images/AFP)

He continued to star in popular movies throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, including the iconic 1971 children’s film “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 phylacteries 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, the 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.

From left to right: Executive producers David Knight and Julie Nimoy, Karen Wilder, screenwriter Glenn Kirschbaum and director Ron Frank arrive at the opening night premiere of ‘Remembering Gene Wilder’ at The Castro Theatre on July 20, 2023, in San Francisco, California. (Miikka Skaffari/Getty Images/AFP)

“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.

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