Gene Wilder, the comedic actor and director who died Monday at the age of 83, had the qualities of a good character actor: an idiosyncratic voice, a mop of curly hair, and a familiarly quirky manner. But somehow, he became a star in a string of successful comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, including Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Silver Streak, and Stir Crazy.
What made Wilder stand out, I think, were his wide and expressive eyes. They drew you in and made you want to keep watching him. Wilder's eyes alone masterfully communicated shock, fear, calm, thoughtfulness, frustration, and simmering rage—sometimes all in the same scene. They could convey both sweet sadness and maniacal neurosis. It's through his eyes that Wilder could be, as Sonny Bunch puts it, an "endearing menace."
At the New York Post, Kyle Smith has the comprehensive take on Wilder's dual nature, his ability to balance the "calm" and the "crazy." Here's an excerpt:
In the mid-1970s, my favorite actor, and probably the country's leading comic performer, was Gene Wilder. In 1974, both "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" were huge hits, setting up Wilder for an improbable run of pictures built around his odd blend of talents. His face should have doomed him to be a character actor, but his attention-capturing facility became too great to shunt off to a side part. A Jew from Milwaukee, Wilder could alternate deadpan Midwestern placidity (in "Blazing Saddles" he was a locus of stability) with babbling mad-scientist mania (the title role in the "Frankenstein" spoof). Not knowing which way Wilder would tip — Repression or eruption? The whimper or the roar? — was what made him so funny.
Read the whole thing here.