“Time is a precious thing. Never waste it.” – Gene Wilder
People all over the world felt their hearts sink when the devastating news that Gene Wilder, a true comedic genius who starred in some of the biggest heavy hitters of the 1970’s, passed away at the age of 83 today due to complications from Alzheimer’s. Though Wilder was far from a household name these days, during his hey day Gene Wilder was one of the industry’s most reliable bankable comedic acts, utilizing a frenetic but grounded comedic timing that was centered on anxiety-riddled characters placed into situations that no ordinary man should ever be thrust into.
I was first introduced to Gene Wilder when I was a young kid and starting to really become a movie fan. A local department store native to southeastern Pennsylvania, Boscov’s, had a VHS tape blow out, with movies only being like $3 or so dollars on sale. (That’d be equal to the $5 bin you see at Walmart’s these days.) There was a movie in the pile entitled Haunted Honeymoon, an offbeat comedy written and starring Gene Wilder. The film was by no means memorable but the star power of Wilder along with then-wife Gilda Radner, Dom DeLuise, and Jonathan Pryce was enough to pique my curiosity in other comedy genres. Though Haunted Honeymoon was a flat-out box office bomb (audiences were not prepared for a comedy film that was more in line with the 1930’s Bob Hope style than madcap gut-busting humor), Wilder’s stamp on Hollywood was hard to ignore.
Before he met Mel Brooks, he saw himself mostly as a dramatic actor. He starred in, at first a traveling showing, later television adaptation of Death Of A Salesman and filmed a brief cameo in the iconic Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Brooks, however, saw more in his approach than just being serious. Wilder and Brooks first met in 1964 but their paths separated. It wouldn’t be until Wilder auditioned for a part in a play called Springtime For Hitler, really a cover for Brooks’ newest movie, than the stars would realign for both men. Brooks saw that Wilder could use his deadpan to weave a manic comedy into a role. In 1967, though MGM executives wanted Dustin Hoffman (Brooks remained steadfast in Wilder’s casting), Gene Wilder would first team with Gene Wilder for The Producers. The result was not a disappoint and netted Brooks with Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars in 1968.
Of course, we all know Wilder for other roles. There’s not a single person in the country who will identify Johnny Depp with the standoffish Willy Wonka. Nary a person should ever attribute the role to an individual who didn’t approach the role with a breath of fresh air. 1971’s Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory is one of the first occasions that a beloved children’s nook would be adapted for the screen and dismissed by the original author for straying from the source material. Despite deviating from Roald Dahl’s novel, Gene Wilder was perfectly case as the candy man who left the world behind for seclusion. The movie evokes a childhood innocence, woven with the story of a young boy who, despite having nothing at all, sees the world as a vast wondrous place. The relationship between Wonka and Charlie Bucket brings a father/son quality, Wonka wanting Bucket to succeed but wanting the boy to see his potential. Willy Wonka hasn’t aged a day, in part to the endearing qualities of the youthful elements. But really, drop one bar of Wilder’s timeless rendition of the below and you’re whisked away to a time long ago, before becoming an adult was the thing to do and you were just a kid laying in front of the television.
Wilder would continue to team with Mel Brooks to stamp his essence into the halls of pop culture with his comedy centered on fraught anxiety in extreme circumstances. In 1974, Brooks hit a home run with Young Frankenstein. Wilder co-wrote the screenplay and starred as the American grandson of the mad inventor, who uproariously would fume as people would exclaim his last name. “It’s FRONKensteen!” Wilder would eek with such a comedic droll you would smirk. Later that year, he’d also costar in another Brooks classic, Blazing Saddles. Of course, a movie of such biting satire could never be made in today’s day and age, leaving Brooks’ satire of black culture, centering the action in the Old West (with a black sheriff in a very WASP-like town). Wilder left his mark as Jim, or rather the Waco Kid, a sharpshooter that no man dared to face at high noon – unless you were a smartass kid who shoots a man in the ass. Though tonally different, both cemented Wilder as a comedian who didn’t need slapstick to evoke laughter from audiences but just the right punchline with the right delivery.
Wilder would continue on with roles about nervous Everymen in haphazard situations – The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, Silver Streak (the first time that both he and Richard Pryor would begin sharing the screen in a series of comedy gems), Stir Crazy, The Woman In Red, See No Evil/Hear No Evil. All used his branded style of wit and witticism that were hard to ignore and worth sitting down for two hours to watch. Even when his disinterest in tired and dull scripts came to light the late 1990’s, he still managed to come out of retirement time and again to delight us with performances we couldn’t ignore. He enthralled audiences on Will and Grace for two episodes as Will’s boss (landed him an Emmy) and, just last year, popped up in an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. Even though his acting credits number a mere 37 appearances, every performance of his usurps comedians who appear in triple the roles Wilder has done but lack the same qualities that Wilder possessed.
Off the screen, Wilder was as much a man as you or I. Though he’d been married four times, most remember his marriage to former SNL comedienne Gilda Radnrr. Though the two were married briefly, he remained by her side in a dark time of her life when she was battling ovarian cancer, the same cancer that claimed Wilder’s mother in the late 1950’s. Radner was diagnosed in October 1986 and never left her as she underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments. Though the disease would go into remission, the cancer returned a couple of years later and spread fast. Radner passed away on May 20, 1989. In the wake of her death, rather than let his sadness overtake his being, Wilder chose to actively promote cancer awareness and treatment. He helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and even co-founded Gilda’s Club, a support group to raise awareness of cancer. He even had his own scare with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma but successfully overcame the odds by taking adult stem-cells, then viewed as a radical treatment.
Before acting, Gene Wilder served in the United States Army from 1956 to 1958. During that time he was stationed (locally to me anyway!) in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania as a medic to the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge General Hospital, rehabilitating patients in psychiatric need. Following his desire to act he became a prolific author, penning a must-read auto-biography and, in a rarity, even voiced his own audio book, further enhancing the experience of to listening to a person’s life but in their own very words. Wilder also penned several novels as well from his home in Connecticut.
Though Wilder’s passing leaves as much a hole in people’s hearts as much as Robin Williams did not too long ago, we shouldn’t mourn his passing but rather embrace the delights that he left us with to rewatch. He may have seen himself as more a serious actor than a comedic thesp, but Wilder’s ability to weave laughs from anxious performances is not to be overlooked. I know I personally won’t be able to watch Willy Wonka in the same light ever. I’ll now view his sing-song voice vocalizing Pure Imagination in a new light. I’ve always been fond of the song but now, now the words mean so, so much more than they ever have. Really though, the last quote that Wonka say stoically to Charlie Bucket at that film’s conclusion is what will probably always resonate more with me than ever before;
“But Charlie, don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted…. He lived happily ever after.”