I don't often post twice in a week, but I lost a friend yesterday, a friend I never met and never spoke to. Many of you might feel the same way.
Gene Wilder was a true hero of mine. I don't have many. There are people whose work I admire greatly and people who I might try to emulate under select circumstances, but not many heroes. I define a "hero" as a person who does something so extraordinarily well, and who lives by all credible accounts an admirable, respectable life, that I look up to that person as a model. I never try to be anyone other than myself, but sometimes we all need an ideal to which we can aspire.
For me, one of those people was Gene Wilder. I never actually met the man, although we were in the same room twice. When I was the arts editor of the Rutgers Daily Targum back in the Middle Ages, I made sure to attend a screening of Wilder's film The World's Greatest Lover, a movie he wrote, directed and starred in. Wilder was going to be there, and I wasn't going to miss it.
He came out after the film--which isn't great but isn't bad--had shown and answered questions. I might even have asked one. I honestly don't remember. I do remember having a feeling I occasionally have when confronted with someone whose work I believe truly stands alone--that I don't want to ask a stupid question and sound like a fawning idiot. I guess I didn't do that, because I'd definitely remember.
Wilder himself was charming and personable. He didn't treat college reviewers as the minor league team. He considered each question, gave credit to others--I especially remember him pointing out Harry Nilsson's song for the film--and no doubt suffered some fools patiently.
Many years later, my wife and I attended a session at the 92nd St. Y in New York City when Wilder, who had pretty much retired from acting and rarely spoke publicly, had agreed to be interviewed in depth by Wendy Wasserstein. He was gracious and shy, took a while to warm up to the idea of entertaining an audience, but eventually ended by explaining the origins of the theater expression "break a leg" and how it has been misunderstood for decades. Questions from the audience could be submitted on paper. Mine, regarding his performance in a not-great movie in which he gave a great performance, was not selected.
Like almost everyone else, my real experiences of Gene Wilder were from his astonishingly good screen work. His acting in classic comedies--The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, among many others--was extraordinary among comic actors. Wilder never played the joke. He always played the character. There were no winks to the camera. There was no false move. There would never be a moment that didn't feel real, even in the most outlandish circumstances.
When The Producers was done as a Broadway musical in 2001, it was a work of genius and a phenomenon that can only be compared today to Hamilton, the only other musical to win almost as many Tony Awards. And everything about the show was wonderful, but on our way out of the theater, I said to my wife, "I loved it, but there's just one thing."
She looked at me. "No Gene Wilder," she said.
Matthew Broderick, who took over the role of Leo Bloom a mere 34 years after Wilder had done it on film, played the part well. But he played it as a timid nerd and nothing else. Wilder played it with so much emotion and so much heart that the viewer could extrapolate a complete backstory for the character. We knew how he'd been treated in grade school. We felt the cold shoulders of the women who had repeatedly rejected him over the years. We knew the beating heart of the beautiful butterfly inside that bland caterpillar.
Many people will now remember Gene Wilder--justifiably--as Willy Wonka in the first, real film made from Roald Dahl's novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That's not my favorite Wilder film but it is a staggeringly great performance. A man who could be seen as heartless and cruel comes across as impish and good-humored because the man playing him had such enormous humanity.
In his last years Wilder took to writing books, and while it wasn't his best work, his writing showed more areas of his soul that had gone unexplored in many of his movies. He appeared--I can't know the real man--to have been a man intrigued by human behavior who wished that everyone would just treat each other better.
There are few things a person deposited on this planet can do for his fellow Earthlings nobler than to provide others with a laugh, a smile, a warm feeling. I can't think of anyone who ever did that more than Gene Wilder.
He was one of a kind. We will not see his like again, but luckily we can still see him whenever we choose to do so. That is a great gift. He was a great gift. If that's not a friend, I don't know what is.
Rest in peace, my friend. You are already being sorely missed.