I grew up watching Gene Wilder. I’ve seen just about every movie he ever made. One of the reasons for this is he had a tendency to appear in films with Madeline Kahn, and (believe it or not), she was related to me, sort-of, by marriage.
Without getting into too many details: My dad (who passed on July 4 of this year) was a widower when he married my mother. My dad’s first wife was related to Kahn (a cousin or niece, I’m not sure). I’ve been told stories of me as a baby being babysat by her, which is totally cool and absurd. It also explains why I like saying the name “Lili von Shtupp.”
Back to Wilder: there’s nobody else on screen who can go from prozac cowboy to manic Frankenstein (it’s “Frahnk-en-SHTEEN”) with such effortlessness. Even Johnny Depp can’t match Wilder in pure Yiddish “meh?” attitude. Somehow, remaking the Wonka movie with Depp didn’t enhance the role (honestly, it was scary as a dog spider).
Wilder was a star, but he was never a star, in the celebrity meaning of the word. I could imagine that when the director yelled “cut!” Wilder would return to being your kindly uncle without missing a beat. He would go home, have some tea, and sit down with a good book (or more likely, write one).
Some things about Wilder: without him, Mel Brooks would not have been half as funny. Can you imagine The Producers with Peter Sellers as Leo Bloom? Can you imagine John Wayne as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles? Both Sellers and Wayne were offered those parts and thank God they didn’t take them.
Without Wilder, Richard Pryor would not have been funny at all. Tragic, yes, but not funny. Wilder shed tears for his best friend and made four movies with him, walking through addictions and failures. After Pryor and Wilder’s hilarious wife Gilda Radner died, making movies just became less interesting. Wilder (born Jerome Silberstein) never made another one.
As Sean Fennessy wrote in The Ringer:
Absurdity marked so much of his life — the roles, the relationships, the particular crevasse he occupies in the memories of a lot of grown-up kids. He missed a generation by stepping away when he did. Not that anyone blames him.
I don’t blame him.
These days, you can’t watch Blazing Saddles without every other word bleeped. Not because of swear words, but because it mercilessly lampoons every taboo that existed in 1974 (using language that today will get anyone fired for writing or speaking it out loud). Race, sex, political corruption, Native Americans, Chinese, Mexicans, you-name-it, and they blasted over every red line. Could anyone on earth, today, get away with Mel Brooks sitting on a horse as an Indian chief reading the line “Shvartzes!” to Clevon Little and Wilder? The movie would never be made.
The swearing … and the loud, the bombing … uh, after a while I said, they were dirty… and once in a while a nice, a good film [came along]. But not very many.
Wilder understood the value of good, clean, potty-mouthed, racially insensitive, fart-joking, horse-whinnying, sheep-(well, you know)ing lampooning comedy, versus today’s crass set-piece filth.
If Wilder had not succumbed to the ravages of Alzheimers, he would have made a great president, much better than the other guy who blasts over every red line on race, sex, and political corruption. It’s simply this: there’s theater, and there’s real life. Wilder was one of the great ones who could excel at both, and still know the difference.
I’ll miss him.