JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Some people just seem to make the world brighter for everyone. Gene Wilder, who died Monday at the age of 83, was one of those gifted folks. He brought a unique combination of intelligence, vulnerability, and insanity to his comedic performances, creating characters that were utterly human - no matter how unbelievable the situation.
His collaborations with Mel Brooks yielded some of the greatest movie comedies ever; The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein. In the late seventies and early eighties, he teamed up with Richard Pryor in a series of close-to-perfect buddy movies - if you haven't seen Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, now is the time.
He made some clunkers (The Haunted Honeymoon) and some odd choices (starring in an attempt to make Eugene Ionescu's Rhinoceros a wacky comedy) but even in mediocre films he had the ability to draw out better performances from the rest of the cast. He was a romantic lead in many of his later movies, which seems odd for a curly-haired fifty-something until you see him on screen and realize why he managed to capture the hearts of so many women.
Or...sheep, as you can see in this clip from Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.
So, Reds, what are your favorite Gene Wilder performances?
HALLIE EPHRON: So hard to choose. I so loved him in Young Frankenstein. With Richard Pryor in Silver Streak. But if I have to choose one: Blazing Saddles. He was the Waco Kid, the perfect straight man/foil for Cleavon Little. Droll. Brilliant. He tries to explain racism. One of my favorite bits was him explaining how he stopped being a gunslinger: "Well, it got so that every piss-ant prairie punk who thought he could shoot a gun would ride into town to try out the Waco Kid. I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille. It got pretty gritty. I started to hear the word "draw" in my sleep. Then one day, I was just walking down the street when I heard a voice behind me say, "Reach for it, mister!" I spun around... and there I was, face to face with a six-year old kid. Well, I just threw my guns down and walked away. Little bastard shot me in the ass. So I limped to the nearest saloon, crawled inside a whiskey bottle... and I've been there ever since." When I read the lines I hear his voice.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: "Churchill! Vit his cigars and his brandy and his rotten paintings, rotten!" From The Producers, of course. Also, and of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In our house we call that version the "real" one. It really is superior to the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake. What a remarkable man and artist. Not sure if I believe in an afterlife, but the idea of him and Gilda together again makes me happy to contemplate.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Just thinking about it makes me laugh. There are so many others I want to watch again, and some I haven't seen, like The Frisco Kid with Harrison Ford. Two of my favorite actors. How did I miss that? What a lovely, funny, completely charming man.
JULIA: Debs, THE FRISCO KID is so charming. Young Harrison Ford doing a kind of Han-Solo-in-the-Old-West and Gene Wilder as the sweet Polish rabbi trying to make it to San Francisco.
RHYS BOWEN: Oh Young Frankenstein, definitely. Think how many catch-phrases have come from that movie. Frau Bluecher. Ignore. Putting on the Ritz. I'm chuckling as I write. And Willy Wonka--he was the essence of illusion and mystery in that movie. And he always came across as such a sweet, gentle man.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I am endlessly astonished by The Producers. I have seen it ten million times-and every time, I am blown away by Gene Wilder's quirky, fey, off-center performance. Remember when he goes crazy when he and Zero Mostel realize the play is a crazy success, and they have to pay back the investors like, ten thousand percent? He's hysterical. "I'm hysterical!" he yells. Then Zero Mostel throws a glass of water on him, and he says "I'm wet, and I'm hysterical!" It is too perfect.
And yes, Susan, I completely agree, his Willie Wonka is the REAL movie. I so love it when he says, dead pan, "Oh, don't, stop." it's hard to explain, which is what makes it so wonderful. You have to see it.
And did you see what he said about the portrayal of Willie Wonka? He told the director that he wanted his first appearance to indicate that he had to walk out, very feebly, with a cane, all wobbly and old. . Then--after that, he'd do a huge somersault, and come up with a fabulous flourish.
If I do that, he said. for the rest of the movie, no one will ever know if I'm telling the truth.
Is that brilliant, or what?
JULIA: How about you, dear Readers? Share your Gene Wilder love with us in the comments.