Gene Wilder, 55BA, is probably best known for making millions of people laugh, but his skills as an actor, screenwriter, and director have made enormous contributions to American cultural life.
From the time he appeared in The Producers (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), he became a well-known face in feature films. He has been twice nominated for an Academy Award, for The Producers and for Young Frankenstein (1974), and he has made countless classic comedies.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933, Wilder graduated from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in Communication and Theatre Arts in 1955. He soon made a name for himself in professional theater, winning the attention of Hollywood. The rest, as they say, is movie history.
Wilder's ingenious comic timing and delivery, his Harpo Marx hair, and his infectious smile have become well-known in the many films he has made over three decades, which include Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask (1972), The Little Prince (1974), Blazing Saddles (1974), Rhinoceros (1974), Silver Streak (1976), The Frisco Kid (1979), Stir Crazy (1980), Hanky Panky (1982), The Woman in Red (1984), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1988), Funny About Love (1990), and Another You (1992).
Wilder's acting skills represent only a part of his talent. He conceived the idea for Young Frankenstein and co-wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks. The success of that film, along with the fact that no one else was writing the types of roles he liked to play, convinced him to write-and then star in-more film plays. One of the first of these was The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975). Not only did he write and star in The World's Greatest Lover (1977), he also directed and produced it.
Wilder is a scholar as well as an artist. He based his stage name on Thomas Wolfe's character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and from playwright Thornton Wilder.
In addition to bringing happiness to so many people through his movies, Wilder has provided a major contribution to society through his work in support of cancer patients and their loved ones. After his wife, Gilda Radner, died from cancer in 1989, he became a strong promoter of cancer research and helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles. At the same time, he co-founded Gilda's Club, a cancer-patient support program that began in New York City and now has chapters throughout the country.
In 2001, Wilder and his brother-in-law and co-author Gil Pearlman donated a significant collection of scripts, correspondence, film memorabilia, and photographs to Special Collections at the UI Libraries, including a draft of Young Frankenstein.
Wilder's successful career and his selfless and heartfelt work in supporting cancer patients and cancer research have clearly made him one of the UI's most valued and beloved graduates.
Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.