Gene Wilder is gone, and there will never be another


I know it’ll likely come across as untrue, as it sounds like the kind of thing someone would make up in the wake of a famous person’s death, but I was just thinking about Gene Wilder. I mean I was literally thinking about him a few days ago, and not just in trivial, passing kind of way. I was thinking about his career, his decision the better part of 20 years ago to walk away from acting, and how wonderful it would be if, like Willie Wonka that first time we see him in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he might one day theatrically summersault back out into the public eye and amaze us once again. [I didn’t know until just now that he’d been suffering fro Alzheimers.] Interestingly, I just learned this evening that Wilder wrote that iconic scene in which Willie Wonka first leaves his factory, after having spent an untold number of years locked away inside. Here’s the scene, followed by a 2007 quote from Wilder about why he thought that it was so important to add it.

OK, now here’s what Wilder had to say about the above scene in his March 25, 2007 interview with Ms. Magazine founding editor Letty Cottin Pogrebin. [If you like, you can also see segments of the interview animated by PBS Digital Studios.]

When the director came to my house (to talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), I said, “Well I like the script, except, when the audience sees Willie Wonka for the first time, I want to come out of a door with a cane, and limp my way to the crowd. And they’ll be like, ‘Oh my God, Willie Wonka, he’s a cripple, I never knew,’ that sort of thing, and (then they) quiet down, quiet down. Then Willie Wonka’s cane gets stuck in a brick, and he starts to fall forward, and he does a forward summersault, and jumps up, and the crowd cheers and applauds.” And the director said, “What do you want to do that for?” And I said, “From that time on, no one will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.”

I just love that. And now I can’t help but wonder how much of what we saw on the screen was really the work of Gene Wilder… and how lucky we all are that Mel Brooks just happened to see him that night on Broadway and think to himself, ‘This guy might be right for Springtime for Hitler,’ the project which would eventually evolved into The Producers.

So, the question is, what should I watch tonight; Sliver Streak, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, or something different altogether? [I’ve just recently seen both Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Producers.] OK, I’ll give you a few minutes to weigh in with your suggestions, but you’d better hurry.

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  1. Frosted Flakes
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    Sad news.

    I am watching World’s Greatest Lover.

  2. wobblie
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    My wife was quoting Willy Woinka almost at the same time as I looked on the web and saw Gene had died, a sad day for all.

  3. Posted August 30, 2016 at 6:07 am | Permalink

    I ended up renting Blazing Saddles through Amazon and opening a bottle of wine.

    I know it’s difficult to accurately assess the character of a man through the image he portrays on the screen (see Bill Cosby), but Wilder always exuded a sense of humanity that rang true and authentic to me. Again, I know perceptions can be misleading, but I’ve always found his work to be incredibly comforting, highly engaging and wholly unique, and I’ve convinced myself that this was a direct reflection of the man beneath the character. There just was something so daring and open about his work, a complex kind of vulnerability with a sense of overwhelming compassion at it’s core. But there was also something else there, lurking just below the surface, a hint of sadness and complexity… I lack the words to do him justice, but I felt compelled to try… He will be sorely missed.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    If you don’t have the $3.99 to rent on Amazon, and you can’t want for the TCM marathon, someone videotaped their television while watching See No Evil and uploaded it to Youtube.

  5. Mr. X
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    I’ve always thought the iconic bronze Fonzie statue in Milwaukee should have been of Gene Wilder instead. (Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee.) Maybe I’ll start a campaign to melt down the Fonze and set things right.

  6. Katherine
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    I agree with your assessment. Most people today probably know him as the inspiration for the Condescending Wonka Meme though.

  7. Shane
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    I’m so glad you posted about Wilder. He was dear to my heart.

  8. M
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Everyone online is writing about Gene and Gilda, talking about how sweet it would be if they could reunite in heaven. Am I the only one wondering how Gene’s current wife would fit into that equation?

  9. Meta
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Wilder’s nephew, who he raised as his own son, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, has released a statement.

    It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.

    The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones – this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognise those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.

    The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.

    He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London bistro some years ago that are among each our cherished possessions. She was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow as he was taken away.

  10. Lynne
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    Wow. That is a truly beautiful last moment.

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