I only met Gene Wilder once, more than twenty years ago, but it was a memorable day in my life. He was everything I had hoped he would be: sweet, articulate, and generous of spirit. Although he was ostensibly promoting his new (and short-lived) NBC sitcom, he didn’t mind reminiscing about Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, or his long association with Mel Brooks.
Most of the stories have been repeated by now, but here’s one that stands out for me. I asked if he remembered where and when he first saw Young Frankenstein with an audience. “I was in New York City and I went with my daughter to the Sutton 57th Street Theater at midnight,” he recalled without hesitation. “The title came on and the audience started laughing and then applauding…and the picture hadn’t started yet! I said, ‘Oh my God, this must [be] what it feels like when an earthquake or hurricane [occurs], some gigantic force of nature.’ I had never seen that in a movie theater before. They were roaring just from seeing the title and it didn’t stop. Then they applauded at the end.”
He also shared a moment of clarity that he had while making his classic comedies with Mel Brooks. “There was a time when I wanted to be in the movies so that everyone would see me in the movies,” he explained, “It was after Blazing Saddles but before Young Frankenstein that I realized it wasn’t the enjoyment of people seeing me that I cared about anymore; it was the enjoyment of doing a film. Even if I were dead before the film were released—that’s a huge thing for an actor to accept—for some reason I thought, during Young Frankenstein, ‘This is the bliss.’ It’s not when it’s released, because it may be a success, it may be a failure, but right now, on this set—“put the candle back”—that was the heaven on earth. I started to cherish the making of the films more than the release of the films.”
For many people, it isn’t The Producers or the other Mel Brooks movies that come to mind when Gene Wilder’s name is mentioned.
My colleague Greg Ehrbar writes, “It’s heartening—and interesting—that so many Gene Wilder obits start with ‘star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’ This is a movie that, in 1971, was generally disliked by critics, ignored by the public and tossed from Paramount to Warner Bros. with disdain. Its success began with television and cable. Even the soundtrack album was quickly cut out of the catalog and relegated to the bargain bins.
“Now it’s such a classic that most people do not know, or can’t believe, what a flop it was when it was new. Even The Wizard of Oz did fairly well at the box office before it became an institution on TV starting in 1956. And the soundtrack? It’s just been reissued on vinyl.”
Greg adds, “I only mention this because none of us knows what will ‘take.’ No matter what might be in vogue in its time, or what massive marketing a thing might have behind it—and most important, where we think we are in life and where we might be tomorrow, there is no telling what will really happen or how we ultimately can make an impact on others.
“When he filmed Willy Wonka forty years ago in a Munich studio,
Wilder could not have known what his brilliance in the title role would mean to generations of fans. It’s in the same league with Judy Garland as Dorothy, Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins, or James Stewart as George Bailey (in another movie that performed poorly in its initial release).
“According to Variety, Wilder did not disclose his illness because he didn’t want children to see Mr. Wonka in a bad state. ‘He simply couldn’t bear the thought of one less smile in the world,’ his nephew said in a statement. He brought such humanity to every role he did, no matter how insane they may have seemed on the surface. Wonka caresses the Everlasting Gobstopper Charlie has given him with pain and tenderness, quoting Shakespeare: ‘So shines a good deed in a weary world.’ ”
Rest in peace, Gene Wilder, and God bless you.