Gene Wilder has died. He was an unlikely movie star. A fine actor with a deftcomic touch, but still not the kind of guy (or the kind of face) you'd think would be earmarked for stardom.
He was chosen the same year to play one of the leads in Mel Brooks' The Producers. The film is a comedy classic, thanks in no small part to Wilder's Leo Bloom, the meek accountant who's convinced to join a fraudulent scheme by Broadway producer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel. While Mostel has the bigger part, in every sense of the word, I think Wilder's quiet yet panicky Bloom steals the show. The Oscars agreed, and gave him his only acting nomination.
After that he did a Woody Allen comedy, starring in one section of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask, where he portrays a man who falls in love with a sheep. While Mel Brooks and Woody Allen were the two top comic filmmakers of the 1970s, this is not one of Woody's better films, and Brooks would use Wilder to better advantage.
This was actually Wilder's project, but Brooks, now a recognized comedy director, was brought aboard. This time around, Wilder is the clear lead and many would say it's his greatest role. While he's very funny, he also has to play it straight enough to hold the story together. (Also in 1974 he appeared in a small part in Stanley Donen's The Little Prince, as well as Thursday's Game, a little-seen TV-movie written by James L. Brooks that deserves another look.)
While this was happening, he found a new comic partner in Richard Pryor, and they made some hits of their own. First--and still best--is Silver Streak (directed by the recently-deceased Arthur Hiller). It's a romance and murder mystery aboard a train, but the real romance is between the duo of Wilder and Pryor. Their next three films together, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You, are examples of diminishing returns.
Some of the films he made around this time featured Gilda Radner. Wilder and Radner became an item in the 1980s, and were married from 1984 until her death in 1989. Those last few years when she was ill he didn't do much work. However, when he returned to movies, he wasn't the star he'd been, and before too long, was out of films.
He went on to appear in a number of TV shows and TV movies, and essentially retired from acting in his late 60s. But there was a time, mostly in the 1970s, when he was the face of Hollywood comedy.