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Upon his passing in the summer of 2016, legendary actor Gene Wilder was remembered as a powerhouse of charm, earnestness, and comedic timing. And even when you have a career as prolific and memorable as he did, there are still some roles that'll be remembered more than others. For Wilder, his role as the titular confectionary genius in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was one that shone above most of his other credits, which was something the man himself foresaw. Which is a shame, because while that role was indeed a classic, the film he really wanted to be remembered for was Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein.
This fact was brought up during an interview with Woman's World, in which Gene Wilder biographer Brian Scott Mednick mentioned one particular interview where Wilder made this fact well known. Mednick recalled this as follows:
He gave an interview once where he said he did not want his gravestone to say, 'Here lies Willy Wonka,' yet ironically he did not have much choice about his legacy. When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else. Gene wanted to be most remembered for [1974's] Young Frankenstein.
Part of the reason that Gene Wilder was probably better remembered for playing Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when he died is the fact that a lot of the people who grew up with that film in its initial release are now adults who not only hold that film as a strong, memorable experience from childhood, but also went on to pass those memories to their children through that very same film. Yet that truth does sting a bit when thinking back to the fact that Young Frankenstein was more than just a role which Gene Wilder truly loved, it was also a symbol of him finally making it big in Hollywood.
Wilder not only starred in the film as the reluctant grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein, but he also co-wrote the film with director Mel Brooks after they'd discussed the idea during the production of Blazing Saddles. Operating as Gene Wilder's first success as a screenwriter, and a continued success as a Hollywood actor, the horror-comedy classic was a benchmark for the man's career. But, while Young Frankenstein is still very much a popular film, its appeal is obviously limited to fans of high-brow homage. Meanwhile, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was further proof that family friendly blockbusters tend to make a wider impact than most other genres, even if it takes a while for the film in question to catch on.
When it comes to actors who were afraid of iconic roles dwarfing their legacies, Gene Wilder certainly wasn't alone. Sir Alec Guinness never wanted to be remembered as Obi Wan Kenobi from Star Wars. Richard Harris almost didn't take the role of Dumbledore in Harry Potter, because he knew it would be the most popular credit to be mentioned once he passed. But, while the newscasts may have been full of clips from Wilder's career, set to the tune of "Pure Imagination," you can bet there were still legions of fans quoting their favorite lines from Young Frankenstein right alongside them.