As you know, the great Gene Wilder died today, August 29, 2016. Looking at his body of work, it's clear he's one of the greats, but we've lost a lot of greats this year. If you take a deeper dive, however, you'll see that Wilder was one of the most important artists of the 20th Century. He influenced the tone of film comedies for years to come, and along with Mel Brooks, made lowbrow comedy a highbrow art form. While Charlie Chaplin earned Oscar nominations in the 1940s, comedic actors, writers and directors rarely got nods again until Wilder came along. Actors like Johnny Depp, Robert Downey, Jr., and Melissa McCarthy are able to do what they do and get Oscar nominations for it, because Wilder showed them how.
Simply put: Wilder was a big friggin' deal, and here are 7 reasons why.
1. The Producers
Wilder's Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks' The Producers took freaking out to new levels. That character, an absurd, over-the-top character, led to Wilder's first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, something rarely bestowed on comedic performances.
2. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Why was this such a big deal? It came out in 1971, a year known for heavy films like The French Connection and The Last Picture Show. But there's Oscar nominated and newly famous Wilder being weird AF. Of all the films released in that epic year, it's also the one that still gets played the most (even after the reboot). You're welcome, Johnny Depp!
3. Blazing Saddles
Mel Brooks is the genius behind much of Wilder's work, but what you probably don't know is that Brooks didn't start being prominently featured in his own work until Blazing Saddles. Why? Because Wilder made it OK to have an unconventional-looking character actor as a lead in a movie. That's like the basis of Bryan Cranston's career. Wilder made it happen.
4. Young Frankenstein
Brooks and Wilder's collaboration reached its crescendo with Young Frankenstein, released the same year as Blazing Saddles. Both were rewarded with an Oscar nomination for writing. It was unusual enough for a comedy script to be nominated, but doubly so because Wilder was the lead in the film. Wilder went on from Frankstein to direct many of his own films. This is not uncommon today, but in the 1970's there weren't many actor-director films being produced.
5. Stir Crazy
Stir Crazy is just one example of the many buddy films Wilder and Richard Pryor did together, including Silver Streak and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Stir Crazy came at a time when there weren't many mixed race buddy films being made, and the ones that existed were often bogged down by the plodding social commentary. Wilder's collaborations with Pryor let the comedy be the statement, showing that in post-Civil Rights era America, two comedy greats could come together, be weird, make you laugh, and do it naturally enough to forget you ever thought it was unusual.
6. The Woman in Red
Wilder took on less work later in his career, largely to take care of his partner, comic legend Gilda Radner, who died of cancer in 1989. Instead, he focused more on directing films like the Oscar-winning The Woman in Red. The films he directed—Haunted Honeymoon, The World's Greatest Lover—often focused on the absurdity of relationships, especially a man's approach to being in love. Sound familiar? Yeah, that's basically every Judd Apatow movie.
7. Will & Grace
Wilder's last major appearance was on Will & Grace as Will's eccentric (and often absent) boss. It was a performance that won him his first Emmy award. It wasn't prolific, but it did give us, the fans, a moment to spend just a little more time with a genius that gave so much to the world of comedy. Today, film greats often turn to television, once the lesser medium, for more unusual roles that introduce them to new audiences.
What a man, what a legacy. Keep it weird!