Hollywood legends of Wisconsin | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

Hollywood legends of Wisconsin


You know Gene Wilder of “Blazing Saddles” and Charlotte Rae of “The Facts of Life” but did you know they were born to Jewish families and from the Badger state?

Yes, here are four individuals, legends of Hollywood, who got their start as young Jews in Wisconsin. They all left our state years ago, so maybe none would know what a bubbler is, but all must have known that the lake is always in the east.

Charlotte Rae

Charlotte Rae

Charlotte Rae in 2012.

Charlotte Rae, 90, is best remembered as Mrs. Garrett from the “The Facts of Life,” one of the longest-running sitcoms in the 1980s.

She was born Charlotte Rae Lubotsky on April 22, 1926 to Russian-Jewish immigrants, according to OnMilwaukee.com. She spent the first 10 years of her life living on 12th Street until her family moved to Murray Avenue in Shorewood, according to the site. She graduated from Shorewood High School in 1944.

She attended Northwestern University and then moved to New York City and pursued a stage career. After performing in plays and winning awards, she moved to Los Angeles where she guest-starred on various shows and, for “Diff’rent Strokes” (1978), served as Gary Coleman’s housekeeper, “Edna Garrett,” according to media reports. She went on to star in the role in the “The Facts of Life.”

“For the first 10 years of my life I lived at 1232 N. 12th St. It’s a freeway now,” Rae told OnMilwaukee.com in 2012. “My father owned a tire store. There were three girls in my family, and I was the middle one.”

Gene Wilder

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Gene Wilder in a 1970 publicity photo.

OK, admit it. “Wilder” is a better stage name than “Silberman.”

Gene Wilder was born with the name Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, to a Jewish family.

His father, William, emigrated from Russia, according to Biography.com. His mother, Jeanne, had heart disease and a doctor reportedly told 8-year-old Jerome, “Don’t ever argue with your mother… you might kill her. Try to make her laugh.”

Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish college fraternity, lists Wilder as 1955 alumni. He attended the University of Iowa.

Of Wilder’s four wives, only Gilda Radner was Jewish, the Jewish Voice reported in 2012. “I married a Catholic, then I married another Catholic, and then I married Gilda – she’s as Jewish as they come,” he reportedly told Abigail Pogrebin in 2005 when she interviewed him for her book, “Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish.”

Wilder is known for a storied career in film with no particular Jewish bent, but “The Frisco Kid” (1979) is a vibrant exception.

Set in the wild west, the comedy follows a sweet, lovable Wilder, playing a Polish rabbi who is absolutely driven to bring himself and a Torah to his new congregation in San Francisco despite barriers and trouble along the way. The rabbi is befriended by an outlaw, Harrison Ford. He plays it like Han Solo – this movie came out two years after the first “Star Wars” film!

In one great moment, Wilder and Ford are running for their lives and Wilder is refusing to get on a horse until the sun goes down to end Shabbat.

Don’t believe the 53 percent splotched tomato score on RottenTomatoes.com for “The Frisco Kid.” It’s a Jewish classic.

Wilder was in his 30s by the time he broke through, first in Mel Brooks-written comedies like “The Producers” (1968) and “Blazing Saddles” (1974), according to NBC News and Today.com. Later, he succeeded in partnership with Richard Pryor in films like “Silver Streak” (1976) and “Stir Crazy” (1980).

He may be best remembered for his mirthful but hard-edged Willy Wonka in 1971’s “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.”

Wilder is 83.

Jackie Mason

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Jackie Mason in 2006.

Jackie Mason was born Yacov Moshe Maza on June 9, 1931, in Sheboygan, according to JewishVirtualLibrary.org.

At age 5 his family, a family of many rabbis, moved to New York City. His father, grandfather, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather were all rabbis, as are his three brothers, according to JackieMason.com, his official site. No surprise that at age 25, Jackie Mason was ordained a rabbi.

He quit his job in a synagogue to become a comedian because, as he says, “Somebody in the family had to make a living.”

Mason has had a long career on Broadway, on TV and in film. His one-man show, “The World According to Me,” ran for more than two years on Broadway and earned Mason a Tony Award.

In 1991, during the first Persian Gulf crisis, he closed his show on Broadway and traveled to Israel in a show of solidarity that was later honored by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to his site.

Mason is outspoken politically to this day. In February, he reportedly said in a radio interview that celebrities who support a boycott of Israel should be blacklisted.

“A Palestinian in Israel can make a comfortable living, can be a citizen, can even be in the government, and we treat them like kings,” he said, according to the Times of Israel.

Mason is 85.

Sid Fields

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Sid Fields

Sid Fields, who was born Sidney H. Feldman, is best remembered today as the foil on “The Abbott & Costello Show.”

The actor and comedian was born in Milwaukee in 1898, according to Fandingo. He started doing comedy in local theaters as a boy.

For two seasons on “The Abbott & Costello Show,” he played the duo’s short-tempered landlord (named “Sidney Fields”), according to Fandingo.

“The Abbott & Costello Show” ran on television from 1952 to 1954 and is widely considered a classic. Jerry Seinfeld is reportedly a fan. In fact, he paid tribute to Fields in the 58th episode of “Seinfeld,” called “The Old Man.” In the episode, “Sid Fields” is a character played by Bill Erwin as an ill-tempered old man.

Fields also appeared in 1930s film comedies and on Abbott and Costello radio shows in the 1940s.

Fields died Sept. 28, 1975 in Las Vegas. He was 77.