What’s in a name? Quite a bit, if you ask this screen legend. We’ve only ever known him as Gene Wilder, but this brilliant actor was actually born Jerome Silberman, in 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At age 26, he decided his name was too bland and decided to formally become Gene Wilder.
His inspiration for the name came from his passion for Thomas Wolfe novels, which often had a character named Eugene Gant. As for the last name, he was also a big fan of American playwright Thornton Wilder. And just like that, one of the best actors in history came to be.
His Family Were Orthodox Russian Immigrants
Like many other Jewish families at the time, Wilder’s father, William Silberman, had migrated from Russia after the First World War. His mother, Jeanne Baer, was born in the U.S. but she came from a family of Orthodox Russians as well. The common background was presumably what brought the couple together. They got married and had a daughter and a son together.
Growing up, Wilder and his family were part of a Jewish Orthodox Congregation, but as time went by, they started affiliating with a Conservative synagogue. The Silbermans settled in Wisconsin and made a life for Wilder and his older sister.
Strong Jewish Roots
As Jewish tradition dictates, Wilder had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13. The Jewish custom symbolizes a boy's transition into manhood and the ceremony involves the young man reading an excerpt of the Torah in front of all the guests invited. Little Wilder wasn’t too happy about performing, though. Apparently, he had a high soprano tone, and it was very hard for anyone to hear him in the huge synagogue.
In an attempt to fix the issue, he demanded they put microphones in the temple, or there would be no Bar Mitzvah. The microphones were installed, but by then, the growing boy’s voice had changed its pitch.
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.