In 1960, Wilder tried his hand in the big leagues when he auditioned for the role of the infamous Vin Tannen in the Hollywood classic “The Magnificent Seven.” The film, directed by John Sturges, was a Western thriller that became an instant classic.
Sadly for Wilder, he didn’t get the part, and it went to the legendary Steve McQueen instead. Honestly, it would be hard to imagine anybody but McQueen in that role, something that even Wilder agreed with decades later. And besides, it looks like this one part he didn’t get didn’t really stop him from doing big things in the future.
Serving in the U.S. Army
While his experiences in military school weren't exactly positive, Wilder's experiences in the actual military were vastly different. Shortly after moving back to the U.S., Wilder was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956 and assigned to the medical corps after basic training.
After some time, he was given the chance to choose his post, and, wanting to stay close to New York City and his performing arts school, he chose to work as a paramedic at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology of Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. This way, he could both do medical work and keep working on his passion.
A Family Tragedy
In November of 1957, Wilder’s mother passed away from a battle with cancer, and it devastated the family. Sadly, this was not something that could be cured by putting on skits, no matter how funny they were. One year after her death, Wilder was discharged from the army, and he went straight back to New York City to pursue acting full-time.
He went back to a full class schedule at the HB Studio, and while he lived off unemployment benefits for a while, he ultimately got odd jobs as a fencing teacher or driving limousines. Imagine being driven around by this man!
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.