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GENE WILDER: FAREWELL TO A GENTLE MAN

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.

Zero Mostel-Gene Wilder

Two indelible performances: Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom in ‘The Producers’ (1968)

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.

Gene Wilder-300

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka(1971)

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).

Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor

Lightning in a bottle: Wilder and Richard Pryor in ‘Silver Streak’ (1976)

“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.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

9 comments

  1. Nat Segaloff says:

    “Willy Wonka” was not “tossed from Paramount to Warner Bros.” I worked on the first run release for Paramount and handled Gene on a li9mited press tour (he was a dear man). It was, indeed, soft at the b.o., so much so that the Quaker Oats Company, which had agreed to merchandise the candy, tried to bail themselves out by selling Wonka Bars (which were damn good). “Wonka” went to Warner Bros. when David L. Wolper made a production deal with that studio (to do, among other things, “LA Confidential”) and his titles simply followed him. On a side note, I wish WBHV would release his documentaries but many of them are in B&W and therefore of no interest (yeah, right).

  2. Joseph T. Porter says:

    It is a sad day. And I was actually thinking when I listened to Mel Brooks recently on Mr. Maltin’s wonderful podcast that maybe by some miracle Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder might possibly make another film together.

    I can only say, with a bit of forgivable braggadocio, that I saw Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles and Willy Wonka on their first release in the theaters and, more bragging, I KNEW Willy Wonka would be around for a long time.

  3. mike schlesinger says:

    Many, many classics, from THE GENERAL to DUCK SOUP to FANTASIA to VERTIGO to A CHRISTMAS STORY, were disdained or ignored at the time of release, only to find their audiences later. Even THE PRODUCERS, as Mel put it, “…became a classic, but was never a hit.” In any event, we were so blessed to have Gene in our lives at a time when “gentle” was considered a good thing.

  4. Norm says:

    WW, An everlasting heartwarming performance in a finite world…

  5. Steven Pless says:

    Beautiful article, Leonard. He was a Hollywood classic that will not be soon forgotten. I remember watching Blazing Saddles when I was a kid, thinking “Look how much fun they’re having making a movie! I want to do that!” He had the unique ability to make you laugh so hard your sides hurt and then make you cry rivers. It’s hard to imagine a world with Gene, but I’m glad that I’ll always have his movies to remember him by.

  6. Ken from Down under says:

    Many thanks. It was so nice to hear your Mel Brooks podcast recently and hearing him speaking glowingly of Gene Wilder. Being a Famous Monsters kid I have priceless memories of my Dad taking me to see “Young Frankenstein” in the cinema and with having contacts at the Fox distributers down here we were able to borrow “Silver Streak” on 16mm

    RIP Mr Wilder

  7. Bob Joles says:

    Thank you, Leonard, for a beautiful recounting of Mr. Wilder’s life in film. I share the same reverence that you have for him, or so I gathered from your essay.

    When I heard the news of his passing earlier today, I felt as though something had ripped my insides out, stomped on them and thrown them away. I felt a horrible emptiness that has only been sated by watching some of Mr. Wilder’s films today. I still don’t feel completely myself, but I do feel better for having watched his genius on screen (my Living Room TV) again. And I will continue watching him for many years to come and feel better and better with each viewing.

    RIP Gene Wilder

    Sincerely,
    Bob Joles
    @BobJolesVO

  8. Mike Fontanelli says:

    Lovely tribute. Wilder was appearing onstage in “Mother Courage” with Anne Bancroft when he first met Mel Brooks. He asked Mel, “Why do they laugh?” (It was a serious play.) Mel said it was because he was funny. Wilder said, “But I’m NOT trying to be funny.” Mel, sensing Wilder’s true gift, (and knowing instinctively he was in the presence of another “natural” like his mentor, Sid Caesar) said “That’s the BEST kind of funny there is!” Thanks for all the laughs, Gene. We’ll miss you.

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