We’d grown accustomed to his face—that wry, distinctive mug, smirking at us from beneath his Willy Wonka purple top hat in millions of proliferating Condescending Wonka memes, the epitome of archness and smug condescension. Apologies to Johnny Depp, but no one else could have so perfectly inhabited Roald Dahl’s mercurial candyman like Gene Wilder, who passed away yesterday from Alzheimer’s at the age of 83. Wilder’s Wonka may casually torture his spoiled child guests, but we remember him as a sadist with a heart of gold.
Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, is one of those rare films beloved both by children and adults (or at least I remember them that way); many future generations will discover Wilder’s manic brilliance in his collaborations with Mel Brooks—Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Producers—and with Richard Pryor, his friend and frequent comic foil. And those who lived through the 80s will also remember Wilder for one of the great romances of the decade.
Wilder and Gilda Radner were a comedy power couple whose marriage ended tragically with her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. That same year he received a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “Wilder was devastated by Radner’s death,” writes Variety, “and only worked intermittently after that.” But he never lost his sharp, madcap sense of humor and deep well of genuine vulnerability as his career shifted into lower gears in the ensuing decades. (He won an Emmy in 2003 for a guest role on Will & Grace and published a novel in 2007).
Wilder was always happy to share his creative insights and stories with fans, giving frequent interviews in the last few years and appearing on panels like that above, a 1999 forum on “The Wonders of Creativity” with Jane Alexander, Danny Glover, and others. Wilder shares a hilariously irreverent story from his childhood about how he learned to consciously make other people laugh by practicing on his mother after she’d had a heart attack.
This anecdote gives way to another, both laugh out loud funny and heartbreaking at once, of young, 1st-grade Gene (then Jerry Silberman) facing rejection from a teacher (“That stupid lady”) who told him his artwork wasn’t good enough to hang on the wall. The hurt stayed with him, so that in 1984, he tells us, “I began painting. Now I try to paint every day of my life.” Wilder communicates his creative philosophy through personal vignettes like these, colorfully illustrating how he became an actor Pauline Kael called “a superb technician… [and] an inspired original.”
In the animated Blank on Blank interview clip above—taken from his 2007 conversation with Letty Cottin Pogrebin at the 92nd Street Y after the debut of his novel—Wilder opens with another version of the story about his mother, the source, he says of his confidence as an actor. He began his career in the theater in the early sixties, and says he “felt on stage, or in the movies, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free.” He also talks about actors’ mysterious motivations:
If you ask an actor, “Why do you want to act?,” I don’t think most of them know the real reasons. After seven and a half years of analysis, I have a fairly good idea why. My analyst said, “Well, it’s better than running around naked in Central Park, isn’t it?”
Wilder then tells the story of how he suggested Willy Wonka’s dramatic entrance to the film’s director—insisted on it, in fact, as a condition for taking the part. “From that time on,” he said of the character’s first moments on screen, “no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” That was the comedic genius of Gene Wilder, may it live forever in some of the most sweetly hysterical and wickedly funny characters in film history. Learn more about Wilder’s life and long career in the retrospective documentary below.