The word “neurotic” will inevitably attach itself to obituaries of Wilder, who died on Monday at the age of 83. But Wilder’s jittery affect and anxious performances were always grounded in reality—in some ways they were the inverse of Woody Allen’s more self-consciously cerebral roles of the ‘70s.
Wilder’s best performances walked seemingly impossible lines. As Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Jim in Blazing Saddles, and Leo Bloom in The Producers, Wilder was simultaneously staid and chaotic; warm and mysterious; taut, but capable of moments of near eerie calm. He was an heir to earlier stars like Buster Keaton and, as Kaleb Horton pointed out on Twitter, Bugs Bunny. Wilder’s characters, particularly those created by Mel Brooks, were almost always absurd—send-ups of familiar, often exhausted tropes. But Wilder always found the humanity in the ridiculous, the pathos in characters like Bloom and Frankenstein, and the mystery in Wonka, which transformed Willy Wonka from a children’s movie into a psychedelic marvel.
But mostly Wilder was really, really funny, capable of moving effortlessly from dick jokes to physical comedy to word play and (if Brooks was writing) back to dick jokes again. Wilder gave timeless comic performances—moments like this, from 1977’s World’s Greatest Lover, would be just as funny in 1926 as they are in 2016. RIP.