At age 13, Wilder’s mother comprehended that her son was too talented and had too much potential for the simple Wisconsin school he was attending. In an effort to find a place that would help him fulfill his potential, she decided to send him to Black Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood. Sadly, however, it quickly proved to be a terrible decision.
Since Wilder was the only Jewish boy in the school, he was terribly bullied and attacked. Thankfully, he didn’t have to go through it for a long time. He returned home after a few months and became very involved with the local theater.
He Was an Incredible Fencer
Most of the time, when we hear about actors with a knack for fencing, it's because they were introduced to the sport as part of the preparation for a role (We're looking at you, Viggo Mortensen.) That's not the case with Gene Wilder, though! Few people know that one of Wilder’s many talents included being an avid fencer.
All throughout school, the beloved actor was one of the best fencers in his class, and he reached such levels of excellence that he even worked as a fencing professor later in his life. Wilder loved fencing, but soon he would discover his true passion – acting. He fell in love with the craft in a very unusual way.
How Wilder Fell in Love With Acting
When Wilder was eight years old, his mother got very sick with rheumatic fever and had to spend weeks in bed. The doctor told the young boy that his job to help heal his mother was to make her laugh. The little boy took this job very seriously – almost instantly, he began putting on plays and skits to entertain her. He found his own passion in the process.
Wilder loved it, and three years later, at age 11, he went to see his sister perform on stage at her acting school and knew it was what he wanted to do with his life.
His First Paid Performance
After many plays and rehearsals, Wilder landed his first performance before a paying audience when he was as young as 15 years old. Oh, to be a young person with a passion and get paid for that passion! The pleasure is unmatched. The local theater put on a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and he played the role of Romeo’s servant, Balthasar.
The play was a success, and Wilder became even more enamored with acting. Three years later, after graduating from school at 18, he enrolled in the theater arts program at Iowa University. There, he hoped, he could continue honing his craft.
Wilder Was a Jewish Frat Boy
You wouldn’t think it judging by the roles he portrayed throughout his career, but Wilder was actually a fraternity jock! After enrolling at Iowa University to study theater arts and communication, one of the first things he did was pledge his loyalty to become a brother at the Alpha Epsilon Pi — a Jewish fraternity. FYI, this was the same fraternity the famous Mark Zuckerberg joined at Harvard many (many) years later.
But fraternity parties and wild times at college never affected Wilder’s spectacular grades. He graduated in 1955, and the University awarded him the Distinguished Alumni Award for excellence.