Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he took acting lessons in his teenage years. He studied drama while attending the University of Iowa and moved to Bristol, England for further drama studies. According to Turner Classic Movies’ database, Wilder made his Broadway debut in the 1961 Graham Greene play, “The Complaisant Lover” as a comedic valet. He would win the Clement Derwent Award for that role.
After performing in Broadway productions, Wilder first appeared on the silver screen in Arthur Penn’s 1967 biopic crime film “Bonnie and Clyde,” opposite Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway.
That same year, he played Leo Bloom (opposite Zero Mostel’s character, Max Bialystock) in Mel Brooks’ hit comedy film, “The Producers” (according to IMDB, the film opened in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1967 and opened nationwide in November 1968). Wilder earned an Academy Award nomination for that role under the category of “Actor in a Supporting Role.” This would begin a longtime collaboration between Wilder and Brooks.
One year later, he starred in the David L. Wolper-Mel Stuart film, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (adapted from the Roald Dahl book, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”). Wilder’s role of Wonka would be one of his most recognized characters on the screen, and has been a cult cinema favorite for both children and adults.
In 1974, Wilder would appear in another Mel Brooks comedy with actor Cleavon Little, titled “Blazing Saddles.” In Brooks’ western farce, he played the role of “The Waco Kid.” alongside Little’s role of Sheriff Bart. Also appearing in “Blazing Saddles” were Harvey Korman (as Hedley Lamarr), Madeline Kahn (as Lili Von Shtupp), Slim Pickens (as Taggart), John Hillerman (as Howard Johnson), Alex Karras (as Mongo) and a cameo appearance by Brooks (playing dual roles- as an Indian Chief and Governor William J. Lepetomane).
That same year, Wilder starred in another hit Mel Brooks comedy spoofing the classic horror film genre, “Young Frankenstein.” In addition to playing Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronck-enstein”), he also collaborated with Brooks on the story and screenplay). Also in the film were Peter Boyle (as Frankenstein’s monster), Marty Feldman (as Igor, pronounced “Eye-gor”), Terri Garr (as Inga), Cloris Leachman (as Frau Blücher), Gene Hackman (as the blind man), Madeline Kahn (as Elizabeth), Kenneth Mars (as Inspector Kemp), along with a cameo voice role by Brooks (as the voice of Victor Frankenstein).
The film was a smash success, and was one of two Brooks films (along with “The Producers” in 2001, with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, which was remade into a feature film in 2005) that would be later adapted for the Broadway stage (for the 2007 stage musical adaptation of “Young Frankenstein,” Roger Bart played Wilder’s role).
In 1976, Wilder appeared in the comedy “Silver Streak,” with Richard Pryor, Jill Clayburgh and Ned Beatty. Both Wilder and Pryor would star in several other comedies, including “Stir Crazy” (1980, directed by actor Sidney Poitier), “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991). After “Silver Streak,” Wilder appeared in another western comedy in 1979, titled “The Frisco Kid” with Harrison Ford.
In 1984, Wilder married comedian Gilda Radner, who was best known as one of the original cast members of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” (from the show’s inception in 1975 and left the series in 1980 to pursue other projects). Before they were married, both Wilder and Radner starred in the 1982 comedy, “Hanky Panky.” According to Joe Blevins’ article on Wilder and Radner on A.V. Club, after she appeared with her husband in the film “Haunted Honeymoon” in 1986, her health problems became worse. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died of the disease in 1989. For the rest of his life, Wilder made a goal to ensure that people were not ignorant about the issue of ovarian cancer. He helped established the nonprofit organization Gilda’s Club (now part of the Cancer Support Community) in 1991.
In 1994, Wilder starred in a short-lived sitcom for NBC, titled “Something Wilder.” In 1999, he appeared (and co-in a made-for-TV mystery film, “Murder in a Small Town,” where he played theater director-turned-detective Larry “Cash” Carter. He would reprise his role in a sequel that was filmed later that same year, “The Lady in Question.” He co-wrote both films.