The iconic comedy star also played the title role in The Frisco Kid.
The Cowboys & Indians crew would like to extend condolences to the family and friends of comic legend Gene Wilder — and to express gratitude for the many laughs he gave us in such movies as The Producers, Silver Streak, Young Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder passed away Monday at age 83.
We’ll also always remember the Milwaukee-born actor for his roles in Robert Aldrich’s The Frisco Kid (1979), a seriocomic adventure that cast him as a Polish rabbi who travels through the Wild West — and bonds with an outlaw played by Harrison Ford — on his way to an assignment in a California community; and C&I reader favorite Blazing Saddles (1974), in which he played a hard-drinking but straight-shooting gunslinger.
Mel Brooks’ hilarious Western spoof spins the story of Black Bart (Cleavon Little), an “uppity” Black railroad worker who’s saved from the gallows and shipped off to be the sheriff of a frontier town by Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), a crooked state attorney general. Lamarr figures, rightly, that the small-minded, all-white populace of Rock Ridge will be so hostile to a Black lawman that citizens won’t come to his aid once the shooting starts, making it all the easier for Lamarr and his underlings to chase off the townspeople and seize their land. But Bart gets invaluable assistance from an unlikely source: Jim (Wilder), a.k.a. The Waco Kid, a boozy yet oddly blissful gunslinger who manages, despite his prodigious alcoholic intake, to draw so fast that no one — not Bart, not Lamarr’s henchmen, not even the audience — can see him take his gun out of his holster.
After hearing of Wilder’s death, his friend and frequent collaborator Mel Brooks offered this tribute on Twitter: “Gene Wilder — One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”
Wilder’s death was officially announced in a statement released by his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, who revealed:
“The cause was complications from Alzheimer's Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.
“He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the company of beloved ones...
“He was 83 and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald… She was singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ as he was taken away.”
Here are some memorable scenes from Blazing Saddles and The Frisco Kid.