From pure imagination to exhilarating eccentricity, here are the scenes that made us fall in love with Gene Wilder, who died Monday at 83.
When he needed all the help he could get in Blazing Saddles
Gene Wilder spilled out of a top bunk and into the most lovable of sidekick roles in Blazing Saddles. As recovering drunk Jim, aka the Waco Kid, Wilder and Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart had the perfect comedy bromance, grounded in the shared recognition that they were clearly the two smartest characters in Mel Brooks’ Western satire. Jim played the amused witness to Bart’s impeccable cool, not just a loyal partner in crime but an appreciative audience stand-in — few actors could do quietly entertained as well as Wilder. He gets some good moments in, but none as instantly endearing as that bit in which Jim meets Bart while swinging from his prison bed, responding to Bart’s query of “Need any help?” with “Oh, all I can get.” It’s not just an answer, it’s a life motto. — Alison Willmore
When he terrified everyone on the paddleboat in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
The charming eccentricities Wilder brought to playing the titular world-renowned candy tycoon in this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel start with his very first scene: Wonka greets the five children who have won his global contest with a cane, only to reveal with a sudden somersault that he never needed it in the first place. Wilder once said he came up with the bit so that the audience would never know whether he was lying or telling the truth, and the moment does indeed set up the character to be something of a slippery trickster.
And yet nothing quite prepares those children — or the audience — for what happens when Wonka takes them on a paddleboat ride through his factory. They enter a dark tunnel and the score turns ominous. His passengers’ panic grows, but Wonka keeps barking “faster!” to his Oompa Loompas as psychedelic lights swirl madly across his face and terrifying images flash on the walls. Then Wonka begins to sing: “There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction we are going…” Wilder begins the song in an eerie minor-key lilt, slowly building in intensity until, by the end, he’s screaming at everyone like a deranged maniac. The sequence ends abruptly, and everyone sets off for the next misadventure, but the thrilling, unhinged hysteria of Wilder’s performance lingers — not just for the rest of the film, but in the imagination of just about everyone who saw it, for the rest of their lives. — Adam B. Vary
When he was hysterical and wet in The Producers
Gene Wilder’s manic energy made would-be producer Leo Bloom almost unbearably neurotic. In his funniest scene in The Producers, he tells Max (Zero Mostel), “I’m hysterical! I’m having hysterics! I’m hysterical!” Max’s logical solution is to throw water on Leo, at which point he responds, “I’m wet! I’m wet! I’m hysterical and I’m wet!” Max slaps him. Now? “I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!” It’s a brilliantly funny performance, made all the more so by the fact that Wilder never decreases in intensity. As frustrating as it is for Max, it’s delightful for the audience. — Louis Peitzman
When he tapped his way through “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein
Wilder often cited Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein as his favorite gig, and the work shows. In this monster movie spoof rich with bawdy puns, vaudeville, and cheap thrills, Wilder as Frahnken-steen went visibly and comedically toe-to-toe with co-stars like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, refreshing through some of Hollywood’s favorite tropes with delectable humor. For example, when he and his monster (Peter Boyle) traipse through an old dance routine as proof that he could bring the undead to life. Wilder, straight-faced and lithe, sweetly croons “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as he tees up the song’s refrain for his creature’s moan. They look so pleased. And who wouldn’t be? It was the perfect gag on the whole. — Katie Hasty
20th Century Fox