Gene Wilder Recalls the Beginnings of His Creative Life in Two Hilarious, Poignant Stories

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Anne Ban­croft and Mel Brooks Sing “Sweet Geor­gia Brown” Live…and in Pol­ish

John Cleese’s Phi­los­o­phy of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Cre­at­ing Oases for Child­like Play

Richard Pry­or Does Ear­ly Stand-Up Com­e­dy Rou­tine in New York, 1964

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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