Gene Wilder was a new kind of Hollywood star

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Gene Wilder was the kind of movie star who could have only come into being during the 1970s, when movies themselves were in flux, writes Gene Seymour.

Seymour: He made the transition from character actor to leading man, showing that he could be zany and still make an emotional connection to audiences

Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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Gene Wilder, who died Monday at 83 after a long illness, was the kind of movie star who could have only come into being during the 1970s, when movies themselves were in flux.

For American film, especially, it was a decade of creative upheaval and ferment; when leading men weren’t just in the traditional good-looking guy mode, such as Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, but also regular-looking guys with strong-if-quirky personalities, such as Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman and a bespectacled polymath named Woody Allen.

Wilder’s leading man capital was every bit as strong as these performers’ – and his range was, likely, even broader.

He could be nerdy and needy, as he was in his first two notable screen roles, the diffident newlywed undertaker in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde” and the explosively neurotic accountant in 1968’s “The Producers.”

He could be winsome and enigmatic, as he was in the 1971 version of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (one of those box-office flops that later became a cult classic). He could be implacably cool (the fast-drawing Waco Kid in 1974’s “Blazing Saddles”) or unaccountably weird (the doctor in love with a sheep in 1972’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask”).

As wildly diverse as these roles were, something about Wilder’s measured, impeccably timed approach to eccentricity began to grow on his audiences, which now seemed ready to accept him as something more than just a versatile character actor.

Both he and his mentor Mel Brooks, who directed both “The Producers” and “Blazing Saddles,” were ready to see how much love Wilder could draw as a romantic lead.

Hence, 1974’s “Young Frankenstein,” on which Brooks and Wilder collaborated as screenwriters and which which starred Wilder as the mercurial, yet oddly endearing descendant of Mary Shelley’s quintessential mad scientist. Pauline Kael’s glowing review of the movie began by praising Wilder as “a magnetic blur … an actor who can play serious roles and well as comic ones…a superb technician.. ..[and] … an inspired original.”

In short, the movie announced Wilder’s arrival as someone who could do just about anything. And from that time forward, that’s what he did, expanding his portfolio in antic parodies with 1975’s “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover” (both of which he wrote and directed). He also became, somewhat improbably, a romantic leading man in such comedies as 1976’s “Silver Streak.” That Hitchcockian railroad caper set in motion an artistically electric and financially lucrative partnership with the late comedic genius Richard Pryor that included 1980’s smash hit, “Stir Crazy.”

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    Through these and many more films, Wilder kept audiences on the edge of their seats anticipating some level of zany explosion. Yet with Wilder, as sensitive in assembling words as he was adroit in delivering them, you were always aware of a grounded human being behind the masks, releasing his characters’ anxieties and desires with the light-fingered dexterity of a safe cracker – or, perhaps more appropriately, a bomb-squad veteran.

    It was this care and solicitude that always made him welcome on our screens. We’ll miss him for that as much as we’ll miss the sweet release of his biggest tantrums and the warm indulgence of his infectious grin.