Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A World of Pure Imagination - Saying Goodbye to Gene Wilder

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.


  1. Gene Wilder was such a gifted actor; it’s so hard to pick just one favorite role from his many wonderful films. Remember him as the abducted undertaker in “Bonnie and Clyde?” While I loved him in “The Producers” and “Young Frankenstein,” for me, his favorite role has to be Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Of course, as Susan and Hank pointed out, Gene’s film is the real version . . . .
    He will be missed.

  2. Going to watch Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tonight in tribute....

  3. What a great gift we were given in Gene Wilder. Yes! He was dead sexy, Julia. You can keep the pretty boys; Wilder's sweetness, his gentle gaze, and those blue eyes get me every time. Best of all, he always made us laugh.

    The first time I ever saw him on the screen was in about 1974, when I saw Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (longest movie title ever? Same as the book it was loosely based on), and that crazy scene with the sheep. He played it totally straight, which is why it was so hilarious.

    Then I saw Young Frankenstein, that genius romp of craziness. Everyone in the cast, especially Gene Wilder, made Mel Brooks' work into the classic that it is. "Dr. Frrrronkenschteen"!

    By the way, everyone keeps saying "now he's with Gilda, the love of his life". I'm not sure that's true. His wife of the last 25 years, Karen Boyer, was with him for longer than all his other wives put together, and was with him at the end. I suspect it might be hurtful for her to keep reading that, over and over again.

  4. Karen, I just posted that same sentiment on Facebook. If you read his autobiography, his marriage to Gilda Radner was difficult. They had problems getting along. His widow was with him for 25 years, through all the ups and downs of life, including cancer and Alzheimer's.

    We got to see him onstage at the Westport Country Playhouse in 2001. Seeing him live was an experience I'll always treasure. There is no one like him, there will never be anyone like him.

  5. He was so gifted, and he brought so much light and fun to the world. Blazing Saddles is far and away my favorite. Anything Wilder did, he did well. RIP, Kid.

  6. The Frisco Kid was, maybe, not a great movie overall, but it had a kind of wacky, lovable, irresistible charm. Such an unexpected story, and almost -almost!- believable. That was Gene Wilder's doing for sure. He was perfect. I think I need to go rent it.

  7. Wow. Reading this makes me want to put everything aside and have a 48-hour Gene Wilder movie fest. Last night Fresh Air ran an old interview with him, and he was such an interesting man - obviously, given his movie choices. Thanks for sharing all your favorite moments from his career. The world has lost a one-of-a-kind talent.

  8. I adore Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and yes, his version will always be the "real" Willie Wonka (even though I read somewhere that Road Dahl's family didn't like it - too whimsical).

    What I loved about Wilder was his comedic and acting genius. That scene with Clevon Little? All ad lib. Little honestly did not know where Wilder was going with that speech and had to fight to stay deadpan. So in the end, when Wilder said, "You know, morons" Little did burst out laughing. Completely unscripted and totally brilliant. And I can hear that speech in his voice, "Little b@stard shot me in the @ss."

    And that scene with Charlie? He didn't tell the kid playing Charlie how violent he was going to get with the speech because he wanted that shocked expression and disbelief on Charlie's face to be real. I think that scene was done in one take.

    RIP Gene. I'm sure he's making them laugh in heaven.

  9. Great post! I had similar thoughts as Susan Elia MacNeal about Gene Wilder being with Gilda Radner again. I saw him in Willy Wonka, which was made before I was born. Loved it. The Johnny Depp version was more scary, I thought. I remember seeing Gene Wilder in many Mel Brooks films. Was he also in Silent Movie?

    RIP Gene Wilder.


  10. I loved Gene Wilder--especially Blazing Saddles, and my all time favorite Young Frankenstein, which I still watch every year on Halloween. I know all the words, every single line, and I never tire of it, not even a little bit.

    When I read that Madeline Kahn had passed away in the NYTimes, (this was before FB, Twitter and immediate news), I still remember I was on a bus on Broadway in NYC heading to work, and I started crying right there on the bus. The same thing happened the other day (17 years later) when I heard about Gene Wilder, while waiting at my son's school bus stop.

    They are two of my favorite comedy heroes, and I'll always love them.

  11. I had the same reaction to all the media comments about Gilda. How unfair to his widow.

    Such fun to watch these clips, even if sad. And lovely that he lives on in his films.

  12. So glad many of you have already remarked about Wilder's poor widow. I'll admit, it was magical to think of him with Gilda, because they both gave us so much joy. But it saddens me to think of her mourning her loss and seeing the frequent comments about how he's "reunited with Gilda at last."

    Not much I can add about his movies. For me, though I loved the others, too, it comes down to a toss-up between Blazing Saddles and Willie Wonka.

  13. I had to watch all the clips before I commented. I loved Gene Wilder's performances so much. He and Mel Brooks are my favorite comedic geniuses, so it's fitting that they collaborated. It's hard to choose between Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles as a favorite, with such outstanding supporting casts in both. I'd probably go with Young Frankenstein, as I've made sure that both of my adult children have a DVD of that movie in their own homes. I think enjoying Gene Wilder with my kids was one of the best movie(s) experience we had. I know that I have Blazing Saddles on DVD, too, but now I want to check and see what others I need to add. Of course, The Producers was outstanding, too, and his Willy Wonka is absolutely the best one.

    I read an article yesterday about Gene Wilder's conversation with Marty Feldman's wife, after Marty passed away at the age of only 48. Gene asked her if she owned their home and when she replied no, he asked her if she'd like to, that he would buy it for her. I don't know if he actually did end up buying it for her, but what a nice guy. Also, Gene Wilder was apparently a details person, as after seeing the sketch for the Willy Wonka outfit, he sent a polite, well-reasoned letter to the designer suggesting some changes.

  14. I had the biggest crush on Gene Wilder back in the 70s. Those big blue eyes....
    Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Willie Wonka, all wonderful. Do you remember Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother with Bernadette Peters? Another fun movie. I absolutely cannot resist Young Frankenstein. I have to watch every time it is on TV. And what a magical cast! So many of them gone now. It's sad.