He could sing. He could dance. He could act. He could be hilariously funny. He was even an Oscar-nominated screenwriter.
Every single one of those talents comes together in this famous bit from Young Frankenstein, which you will surely see in every single piece written about Wilder from now until the end of time. It involves Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein and Peter Boyle’s Monster doing a little dance routine to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Take a look at it again, even if you’ve seen it before:
Let me tell you what I find remarkable about this scene. Wilder consumes nearly all of the energy on screen. He’s the one who sings. He’s the one who dances. He’s the one who mugs and grins and grimaces. And he co-wrote the screenplay with director Mel Brooks, garnering the two Oscar nominations.
But he doesn’t get the biggest laughs. Those are reserved for the Monster, who shouts a nearly unintelligible, “Puttin’ on the ritz!” at the song’s peak.
That, I think, was the secret to Wilder’s success. Remember: He helped write this movie. He could have given this laugh — possibly the biggest laugh in one of the funniest films ever made — to himself. But he knew, on some level, that comedy can be a magic trick. If he’s distracting you from guessing where the laugh will come from, then the laugh lands all the harder when Boyle lets out his weirdo yelp.
Wilder’s comedy wasn’t about hogging center stage. It was about finding a way to share it.
This quality shines through in every one of Wilder’s roles
You can see this throughout Wilder’s career. Here’s one of the biggest moments in The Producers, his big breakthrough comedic film role and his first major collaboration with Brooks. (The two made three films together — The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein — and all three are classics.)
Now, this is a slightly more ambiguous case than the Young Frankenstein clip. Wilder still gets a lot of laughs with his manic racing around and the perfect timing of the fountain shooting up into the air off his, “I’ll do it!” But notice how the really big laugh comes from co-star Zero Mostel agreeing with him with a, “He’ll do it!” that nearly matches the younger man’s fever pitch.
It’s also no mistake that Wilder was a big part of Richard Pryor’s breakthrough as a Hollywood star.
As an established comedic talent, Wilder could be the box office insurance that would let studios take a chance on a comedian who hadn’t yet proved himself as a film star. But he was also exactly the kind of actor who knew when to get out of the way and let Pryor be Pryor. Wilder could be the main ingredient, sure, but he often seemed happier being a spice off on the side, heightening the overall flavor.
Indeed, one of the things that made the Wilder/Pryor team work so well was how both seemed happy to let the other suck up the comedic energy at any given moment. Watch how ably they trade off the role of “comedic lead” in this scene from Stir Crazy. (Sadly, I can only link to it.)
You can even see this quality in Wilder’s truly execrable mid-’90s NBC comedy Something Wilder, which is one of his last major credits. The series is ... well, it’s not great, and trying to put Wilder’s energy at the center of a bog-standard family sitcom is a terrible idea. But even there, he would throw to his less famous co-stars, like Gregory Itzin as his grumpy best friend.
Even in Wilder’s most over-the-top role, he was sharing the screen
Of course, no look back at Wilder would be complete without mentioning Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wonka was probably his most famous role, and his most outsize. He dominates every scene he’s in, to the degree where the book — Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — had the name in its title swapped out for Wonka’s.
And I’m not going to try to claim that Wilder shares the screen here in the way he did in some of his other famous roles. This is clearly his star turn, one that came rather early in his career, and he’s going to make the most of every single moment. (In this role, oddly, the actor he reminds me most of is the 1990s Jim Carrey, similarly frantic and eager to get a laugh in any form possible.)
But go back to Wonka and check out just how little of it actually features, well, Willy Wonka. Yes, he takes over the movie once he enters. But it takes a long time for him to enter, and once he does, he functions less as a protagonist and more as an antagonist, the guy little Charlie has to outlast and outwit to ultimately win the prize of a gigantic chocolate factory.
Compare this with, say, Johnny Depp’s turn in the role in the 2005 retelling of the story, where Depp’s Wonka is given a fleet of parental issues and essentially functions as the story’s hero. The kids fade into the background just a bit. Not so with Wilder’s Wonka.
Wilder didn’t write or direct Willy Wonka, and he wasn’t yet a big enough star to have big influence over either. But at the same time, it takes a certain kind of talent to realize that you can sit out a movie’s first third, be something of a goofy but terrifying villain, and still dominate people’s imaginations afterward. Gene Wilder understood that in comedy, even when you’re going wildly over the top, a sprinkle can sometimes be better than a spoonful.