“What seems to be the trouble?” the therapist asks.
“I want to give all my money away,” he says.
“How much do you have?”
“I owe three hundred dollars.”
Gene Wilder, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art (2005)
WC first saw Gene Wilder as the kidnapped undertaker, Eugene Grizzard, in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. And then next saw him as Leo Bloom in The Producers, the original 1968 movie, that Mel Brooks turned into a smash Broadway hit decades later. The frizzy hair, the slightly pop-eyed look and the air of incipient hysteria were perfect. A series of Mel Brooks’ movies, most memorably Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein cemented Wilder as one of WC’s favorite comic actors.
But the role that, to WC at least, most demonstrates that Wilder could play more than a neurotic was Willy Wonka. There’s a scene, early in the movie, with Wilder as Wonka, riding with the five kids in the Wonkavator for the first time. As the camera holds on Wlder, and his expression hardly changes at all, he changes from a mildly goofy chocolate baron to a crazed-looking lunatic, is one of the great pieces of comic acting WC has seen. As critic Kevin Carr wrote “This is Gene Wilder’s legacy. He was perfect for the role, and it was his mixture of childlike wonder and bitter, deserved vengeance that made the character so compelling.”
WC mentions all this because Wilder died of complications of Alzheimer’s Disease on August 28. He was 85 years old. The man who gave us The Waco Kid, the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein (Dr. Frankenstein (“that’s Frahn-kahn-SHTEEN”), the original Leo Bloom and, above all, the definitive Willy Wonka, as well as dozens of other memorable roles; lost to us, now.
WC doesn’t often write obituaries for movies stars because, well, movie stars. But Wilder is an exception. His partnerships with the likes of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor gave us some of the best comedies of the 1980s and 1990s. He was also a successful stage actor, author, movie director and philanthropist. His 1995 interview on NPR was astonishing.
R.I.P., Gene Wilder. Thanks for all the laughs.