Some months after Wilder and Brooks first met, Brooks offered him the part of accountant Leo Bloom in a new screenplay he was working on. Since it was still a work in progress and Wilder had other job commitments, Brooks made him promise to call him before taking any permanent acting jobs anywhere else.
For three years, Wilder didn’t hear from Brooks until one day, he got a call. Wilder had to go audition with famous actor Zero Mostel for a part in the legendary film “The Producers.” He got the part, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Getting Into The Actors' Studio
Around 1959, the up-and-coming Wilder got accepted into the prestigious Actors' Studio, a membership organization of famous actors and performers. (Not the in-depth talk show with James Lipton we first had in mind.) This gave Wilder much recognition, especially in off-Broadway plays; one of his most famous was his role in the Broadway adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Wilder played the role of mentally ill patient Billy Bibbit in the 1963 play alongside co-star Kirk Douglas. From then on, people started to notice Wilder as a true talent and he started expanding his list of acting credits.
He Met Mel Brooks Through His Wife
In 1960, Wilder was cast in a play called “Mother Courage and Her Children,” in which he starred alongside famous actress Anne Bancroft. As it turns out, Bancroft was dating legendary comedy director Mel Brooks at the time, and she arranged a meeting between him and Wilder in 1963, not knowing how pivotal that meeting was going to be for Wilder's life. The two guys immediately got along.
Little did Wilder know that this meeting was going to be the start of an incredibly successful Hollywood career. Not to mention the start of an incredibly successful Hollywood friendship for the ages.
Wilder Considered Himself a Drama Actor
As weird as it may sound, it wasn’t until Wilder met Mel Brooks that he considered the possibility of being a comedy actor. Wilder had always considered himself a dramatic actor, meant for more serious roles. This was back at a time when comedy wasn't taken very seriously and people outside the entertainment industry didn't realize how much of a talented professional you have to be to make people laugh.
But shortly after meeting Brooks, he realized he had a real talent for making people laugh, and this ultimately led to him taking on the number of hilarious and outrageous roles he portrayed throughout his career.
He Landed the Role of Willy Wonka Almost Immediately
Without a doubt, one of Wilder’s most famous and memorable roles will always be that of Willy Wonka in the cult classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” In 1971, director Mel Stuart was doing a film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book, and everyone obviously wanted to audition. This included famous actors Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers, both of whom were no match for Wilder.
When Wilder showed up to read some lines for the part and exited the studio. Not 10 seconds went by after Mel Stuart got off his chair and ran after him to offer him the role.