A Shift In Filmmaking Pushed Gene Wilder To End His Acting Career

Gene Wilder's film career shone brightly but burned out quickly. He was only in 23 movies in his life, 22 of which were between 1967 and 1991. Wilder was a revelation on the silver screen, making such roles as Willy Wonka in "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" an indelible part of the fabric of cinema. Wilder was also a frequent collaborator with director Mel Brooks, with whom he made a number of spoofs including "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein," and "The Producers." He was a joyful addition to any movie, able to crack jokes and elicit tears in equal measure.

For an actor doing as well as Wilder was, it was odd that he was only actively in films for a 24-year period; it's not like Wilder's soft-spoken nature and kind eyes wouldn't have made him great at playing older characters. But according to a piece by Insider following the actor's death at age 83, Wilder simply wasn't receiving offers that interested him. "If something comes along that's really good and I think I would be good for it, I would be happy to do it," said Wilder in 2013. "But not too many came along."

Wilder wasn't worried about his own film career. He'd done plenty of projects that interested him personally. What he took issue with was where the film industry as a whole was headed, and he had no interest in continuing to be a part of it.

'Can't they just stop and talk?'

In the Insider piece, Wilder explained why he wasn't all that interested in the types of films that had come out recently:

"I didn't want to do 3D, for instance. I didn't want to do ones with bombing and loud and swearing, so much swearing going on. Someone said, 'Oh, go f— yourself.' Well, if it was coming from a meaningful place I would understand it. But if you go to some of the movies, I don't want to say which ones, can't they just stop and talk? Once in a while it comes in handy but not running all the way through the film, and that put me out a lot."

Some of Wilder's complaints can come off as somewhat "old man yells at cloud," but he has some extremely solvent points as well. 3D is an awful headache gimmick that has been worthwhile in maybe three movies ever, and it's not difficult to see that the current cinema marketplace is oversaturated with loud, fast action films.

If an actor as esteemed and well-liked as Wilder wasn't being offered any roles that intrigued him or moved him, I'd definitely call that a failure of the industry as a whole. There were so many filmmakers out there and none of them had ideas that appealed to Wilder's sensibilities? Sure, Wilder not loving cursing was a bit weird, considering his work with Mel Brooks had plenty of that, but surely something could have been worked out to get Wilder in a children's movie?

'Actors fall into this trap'

Wilder had always had a skeptical view of acting as a profession, often referring to the behavior of actors as "childlike," which he explained in a Newsweek interview:

"What I meant by child in that case was the love that you were looking for that you didn't find when you were a kid. You're fooled by the applause into thinking that they love me. They really, really love me. Actors fall into this trap if they missed being loved for who they really were and not for what they could do — sing, dance, joke about — then they take that as love."

With that view of the art form in mind, it makes sense that not many were able to reach him on the same wavelength. But his absence was definitely a huge loss for the film medium, as Wilder was capable of bringing a unique magic to certain scenes that it's hard to imagine another performer replicating.

At one point in his career, Wilder almost lost out to John Wayne for a part in "Blazing Saddles." One of the biggest movie stars ever was considered for a role, and when he could not take it, Wilder stepped in. If that doesn't indicate the level of performer Wilder was, I don't know what to tell you. He was a generational talent, and the relatively few times we saw him on screen are now, in hindsight, even more precious.