Matthew Broderick only met Gene Wilder once, but the two shared an iconic, quivering man: Leo Bloom, The Producers’ terrified accountant who gets roped into a swindle that will madly combine a chorus line and Nazis. Decades after Wilder was nominated for an Oscar for the role, Broderick assumed it in the Broadway musical based on the movie, which opened in 2001. Upon Wilder’s death at the age of 83, Broderick took some time to reminisce to The A.V. Club about what the legendary actor meant to him. “He was the guy who growing up I most thought, that would be great to be,” Broderick said. “And then to actually get one of his parts was sort of surreal.”
Even though Broderick tried to make Bloom is own, he admitted he couldn’t shake Wilder. “I can’t honestly hear any of those lines without hearing his readings of them,” he recalled. “It never went away.” Nor did Broderick entirely want it to. Broderick didn’t try to mess with the famous “blue blanket” and “I’m hysterical and I’m wet” moments after Bloom meets his to-be partner in crime, Bialystock (Zero Mostel in the film, and Nathan Lane in the play). “There were many jokes that I just basically did exactly what he did,” Broderick said. “I hoped because I’m myself that it didn’t look like that, but I definitely was completely copying what I had seen because it was perfect.”
As far as Broderick knows, Wilder only came to the show once, when it was in previews in New York. Mel Brooks—the mastermind behind the character—had mentioned Wilder would show up at some point, and Broderick was “petrified.” That night, Broderick didn’t think he had put on a good show. “[Gene] came backstage with Mel. I remember opening the door and there they were, which was like meeting an astronaut,” Broderick said. “I was so amazed to meet him. He was extremely sweet to me…He was fairly emotional having seen that show, in a way. He was very quiet. He was very very supportive, gave me a hug, and said, Gilda loved you.” Broderick found the reference to Wilder’s late wife Gilda Radner to be a “kind” gesture. “I sound like I’m bragging,” he said. “I don’t mean to be. I just thought that was so sweet of him.”
The two also chatted about screaming, a requirement to play Bloom. Broderick asked Wilder how he freaked out for “so loud for so long.” Wilder shared his Willy Wonka-esque secret: “Chocolate.” Apparently, Wilder revealed that Brooks fed him chocolate bars to keep his energy up. “I had to do the play again the next night so I could never really go as crazy he did,” Broderick said, later noting that he wouldn’t have been able to match Wilder’s antics anyway. “He was a master of these hysterical types,” he said. (For what it’s worth, Wilder also recounted this conversation in a Larry King interview in 2002.)
Broderick was nominated for the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance. Later he reprised the role in a 2005 movie based on the show.