Gene Wilder died and suddenly I’m 14 again, sitting in the middle row at the movies, watching Blazing Saddles and one solitary wild west trails wagon, trying to form a circle all by itself. This is funny because the wagon is going round and round at an old, silent movie type, super fast speed (if memory is correct.) I’m sitting next to the sister and laughing so helplessly that I’m sliding down in the movie chair, about to hit the floor. Fast forward through those teenage years and this time I’m rocking about with mirth (laughter, not somebody named Mirth) watching The Producers on a TV in the aunt’s house. And on into the 80s; I’m at university watching Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, a mainstream hit before their collaboration sort of petered out to an unsuccessful conclusion – but still, Gene Wilder held on to that indefinable something that made him such an appealing and interesting star.
My teenage years were also spent in the celluloid company of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen and Neil Simon (screen writer extraordinaire) – and with a small screen crowd comprising: The Mary Tyler Moore Show (best theme tune and hat throwing opening ever), Rhoda (loved Valerie Harper), M*A*S*H* (loved, loved Alan Alda) Here’s Lucy (not so much part of the I love Lucy crowd), Happy Days, Taxi, Mork and Mindy and Soap. Just like my 21st century sons, my comedic taste was all American – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Because American comedy is, and has always been, the bestest, wittiest, sharpest, most cynical comedy brand on the planet.
Gene Wilder was a strange one. Weird, brillo pad hair. Long nose. Saucer shaped eyes. Not leading man material until Mel Brooks got hold of him, when he was appearing in a play with Brooks’ wife Anne Bancroft. Wilder had a part which was funny at times but not comedic and, after getting to know Brooks a little, complained that the audience kept laughing at him, when that was not his intention. ‘Why are they laughing at me,’ he’d whinge at Brooks. ‘Look in the mirror. Blame it on God,’ Brooks had replied. Brooks is now 90 by the way. How astonishing, thought I, to see one of my comedy God childhood heroes still knocking ‘em dead on US chatshows. And he’s still working the crowds in one man shows, podcasts and voicing animated films like: Mr Peabody and Sherman, Hotel Transylvania 2, Robots. How lovely to hear his non-dulcet, Brooklyn, rasping tones in 2016. And at 90 he can still run on to a stage and natter on at lightning speed, like someone a quarter his age……but this is about Gene Wilder.
Despite Brooks’ veiled insult (Gene Wilder was actually good looking, in a very odd ball kind of way) Brooks and Wilder then embarked on a partnership and friendship that was as great as any formally billed double act, producing three era defining films that broke the comedy mould – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
Wilder’s screen persona was unique. Sort of manic, sort of depressive, sort of neurotic, sort of scary but also very, very intelligent and surprisingly ‘cool.’ And this style, so full of idiosyncrasies, found the perfect vehicle in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory.
Wilder’s performance as Willy Wonka is perfect; it’s iconic. It’s the sort of acting tour de force you can watch over and over again and never tire of it. The sort of serendipitous (my new favourite word) moment in time where EVERYTHING comes together to produce something timeless and classic (Gene Wilder was right when he said his (and it was his) Willy Wonka film should never have been fiddled about with and re-made by Tim Burton/Johnny Depp.) Burton went for obvious strangeness and madness and psychological terror, lurking just beneath the surface, aided by a bucket full of CGI. Gene Wilder achieved all that, and more, via a simplistic quirky half-smile, a cynical roll of the eyes, an air of super cool deception and no heavy duty make up at all.
If you’ve ever watched Gene Wilder interviews over the years, via YouTube as I have, then you’ll notice how different he is in person to the frantic, very near the edge characters he played for so many years. Of course, he’s an actor (trained at the Bristol Old Vic unbelievably) so the fact that he was so different in ‘real life’ shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it did surprise me how calm and quiet he was in person, with a quality of almost helpless shyness at times.
His personal life hadn’t been all fine and dandy. Four marriages; his third to the Saturday Night Live comedienne Gilda Radnor, ending with her death from ovarian cancer, leading Wilder to say he would never date again but, a couple of years on, and he married again, that one lasting 25 years until his death. He had one adopted daughter, who cut all ties with him when she was 22, for reasons not explained but may have been due to a rumoured affair with co-star Madeline Kahn and Wilder’s own admission that he suffered from a very needy, attention grabbing kind of narcissism – not the best recipe for fatherly devotion.
Wilder survived non-Hodgkins Lymphoma during the 90s and again, in 2005, when he received a stem cell transplant, before Alzheimer’s finally got him. ‘I made God smile,’ was how he measured the success of his own acting skills but he could rarely bring himself to watch his own screen performances.
Whereas I have no trouble watching Gene Wilder. And here he is, managing to inject (simultaneously) innocence, playfulness, sadness and slight menace into one of my all-time favourite songs.