1. When he needed all the help he could get in Blazing Saddles
Gene Wilder spilled out of a top bunk and into the most lovable of sidekick roles in Blazing Saddles. As recovering drunk Jim, aka the Waco Kid, Wilder and Cleavon Little’s Sheriff Bart had the perfect comedy bromance, grounded in the shared recognition that they were clearly the two smartest characters in Mel Brooks’ Western satire. Jim played the amused witness to Bart’s impeccable cool, not just a loyal partner in crime but an appreciative audience stand-in — few actors could do quietly entertained as well as Wilder. He gets some good moments in, but none as instantly endearing as that bit in which Jim meets Bart while swinging from his prison bed, responding to Bart’s query of “Need any help?” with “Oh, all I can get.” It’s not just an answer, it’s a life motto. —Alison Willmore
2. When he terrified everyone on the paddleboat in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
The charming eccentricities Wilder brought to playing the titular world-renowned candy tycoon in this musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved novel start with his very first scene: Wonka greets the five children who have won his global contest with a cane, only to reveal with a sudden somersault that he never needed it in the first place. Wilder once said he came up with the bit so that the audience would never know whether he was lying or telling the truth, and the moment does indeed set up the character to be something of a slippery trickster.
And yet nothing quite prepares those children — or the audience — for what happens when Wonka takes them on a paddleboat ride through his factory. They enter a dark tunnel and the score turns ominous. His passengers’ panic grows, but Wonka keeps barking “faster!” to his Oompa Loompas as psychedelic lights swirl madly across his face and terrifying images flash on the walls. Then Wonka begins to sing: “There’s no earthly way of knowing / which direction we are going…” Wilder begins the song in an eerie minor-key lilt, slowly building in intensity until, by the end, he’s screaming at everyone like a deranged maniac. The sequence ends abruptly, and everyone sets off for the next misadventure, but the thrilling, unhinged hysteria of Wilder’s performance lingers — not just for the rest of the film, but in the imagination of just about everyone who saw it, for the rest of their lives. —Adam B. Vary
3. When he was hysterical and wet in The Producers
Gene Wilder’s manic energy made would-be producer Leo Bloom almost unbearably neurotic. In his funniest scene in The Producers, he tells Max (Zero Mostel), “I’m hysterical! I’m having hysterics! I’m hysterical!” Max’s logical solution is to throw water on Leo, at which point he responds, “I’m wet! I’m wet! I’m hysterical and I’m wet!” Max slaps him. Now? “I’m in pain! And I’m wet! And I’m still hysterical!” It’s a brilliantly funny performance, made all the more so by the fact that Wilder never decreases in intensity. As frustrating as it is for Max, it’s delightful for the audience. —Louis Peitzman
4. When he tapped his way through “Puttin’ on the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein
Wilder often cited Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein as his favorite gig, and the work shows. In this monster movie spoof rich with bawdy puns, vaudeville, and cheap thrills, Wilder as Frahnken-steen went visibly and comedically toe-to-toe with co-stars like Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman, refreshing through some of Hollywood’s favorite tropes with delectable humor. For example, when he and his monster (Peter Boyle) traipse through an old dance routine as proof that he could bring the undead to life. Wilder, straight-faced and lithe, sweetly croons “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as he tees up the song’s refrain for his creature’s moan. They look so pleased. And who wouldn’t be? It was the perfect gag on the whole. —Katie Hasty
5. When he horsed around with Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil
See No Evil, Hear No Evil was Wilder and comedian Richard Pryor’s third and final collaboration together onscreen, and with the former as a deaf character and the latter as a blind one, this comedy was filled to the brim with slapstick and one-liners — which the pair hammered at every opportunity. When the two are wrongly booked for a crime and then lined up for mugshots, Wilder and Pryor’s task was to basically frustrate to death the poor cop who’s gotta take their picture. They did so, in spades, at a clip (and a “ship ship ship”) and deadpan ferociousness that proved why their combination was so killer. —K.H.
6. When he broke our hearts and then won them again at the end of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Dark, twisty, and trippy paddleboat ride aside, the most traumatizing scene in all of Willy Wonka comes at the climax when Mr. Wonka leaves Charlie and Grandpa Joe hanging, wondering what they did to be rushed out of his factory so abruptly without their lifetime supply of chocolate. When Grandpa Joe trepidatiously approaches the candyman, only to get yelled at about the fine print of the contract and how they “lose” and “get nothing,” it’s as confusing to viewers as it is to the sole recipient of the golden ticket standing at the film’s end. Wilder’s ability to flip the switch from warm like a fresh cup of hot chocolate to icy like Slugworth’s heart and back again — when he reveals Charlie’s won much more than the chocolate itself — was impressive and terrifying, and it made all of us want to be that “very honest, loving child.” Wilder’s performance will live on forever as a glorious internet meme and in the words “Good day, sir.” —Jaimie Etkin
7. When he took a masterful pause in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask)
Dr. Ross, the physician played by Gene Wilder in the “What Is Sodomy?” segment of Woody Allen’s 1972 sketch film, eventually succumbs to a grand interspecies romance of his own. But the first time he’s informed by his patient, an Armenian shepherd, that the man is in love with a sheep, he responds with 20-plus seconds of hilariously shocked silence before eventually gasping out a muted, “Oh, I see.” Speechlessness has rarely been so funny, before or since. —A.W.