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Remembering Gene Wilder

gene-wilder-stir-crazyI don’t intend to get in a rut with two RIP Spasms back-to-back, but, man, Gene Wilder. Another great one departed and gone up to the stars.

The man was a fixture of many childhoods as Willy Wonka, and he appeared in enough comedy classics to truly live forever.

In remembrance, some thoughts on my five favorite Gene Wilder films, in no particular order.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

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I can’t say for sure if my father took me to see Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in the cinemas—I would have been three years old—but the movie was a staple of my childhood movie diet from a very early age. Televised airings were well-revered yearly rituals, and my school often rented 16mm film prints to show in the main auditorium.

Long before Star Wars put an impressionable stamp on my psyche, there was Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka inhabiting my schoolboy imagination, lording over my youthful dreams. (And like anyone else worth their weight in everlasting gobstoppers, I knew all the lyrics to the Oompa Loompa song.) Wilder’s ever so slightly deranged turn as the melancholy chocolatier is a joyous work of childlike exuberance and whimsy, but with a comic macabre edge that comes through in the way he refuses to suffer idiots—whether they be grotesque children or their buffoonish parents.

Wilder spends most of his screen time portraying Wonka as a calm yet kooky prankster, and we chalk up to eccentricity his ghoulish aloofness over bratty children who put themselves in jeopardy, but nothing can prepare us for that pivotal moment just before the finale when Wilder lets Wonka slip into a terrifying rage at our young hero Charlie in order to truly test his character. This scene encompasses, for me, the genius of Gene Wilder: You never quite know if or when a spring will trip inside his head, or what sort of tempestuous or comical tirade will ensue after the snap.

The Frisco Kid (1979)

frisco_kid_xlgI would eventually take in Wilder’s infamous collaborations with Mel Brooks—The Producers (1967), Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (also 1974)—but my childhood’s next significant encounter with Gene Wilder happened in 1979, with The Frisco Kid. The film is an amusing, unassuming western/buddy flick, with Wilder portraying Avram, a Polish rabbi traveling the frontier in 1850 to meet his new congregation in San Francisco. He’s paired nicely with cocksure bank robber Harrison Ford, red-hot off the first Star Wars.

Growing up Jewish, there weren’t a whole lot of cheerful Jewish role models to look up to in the movies. There was ever-jovial Topol as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof (1971), of course, but most pious Jews in the movies were typically miserable old grumps who never seemed to have any fun (think Laurence Olivier in the 1981 version of The Jazz Singer). Wilder’s dignified turn here was the first time I saw a happy Jew in the movies, and even though Wilder’s character is victimized and harassed by an assortment of frontier hooligans, his quiet perseverance is ultimately triumphant.

Blazing Saddles (1974)

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Comb through Gene Wilder’s films and you will find a predominance of innocuous PG-rated fare. He rarely cursed in his movies, and seldom made outright “vulgar” films. Though Blazing Saddles is an obvious exception, Wilder’s boozy Waco Kid plays the straight man and never utters any of the movie’s legendary epithets.

Stir Crazy (1980)

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The Sidney Poitier-directed jailbreak comedy was a big hit, and even though it isn’t particularly good, it’s harmless enough and features the best of Wilder’s four pairings with Richard Pryor. Like Blazing Saddles, this one is a rare R-rated Gene Wilder movie.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

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Everything you’ve ever heard and read about the mad genius of Gene Wilder is on glorious display in Mel Brooks’ loving ode to the Frankenstein legend. Wilder’s Dr. Frederick Frankenstein is a gigantic role, and the plot allows him to really fly off the handle, but the best moments are, collectively, the individual bits of repartee between Wilder and each of his stupendous costars (Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman).

Wilder co-starred with his wife Gilda Radner in three ’80s comedies, two of which he directed. The most successful of the lot was The Woman in Red (1984), known for the ubiquitous Oscar-winning Stevie Wonder theme song “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and for being the first PG-13 movie so rated for showing full frontal female nudity.

Two of Wilder’s three final motion pictures were forgettable reunions with Richard Pryor—See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991)—both excruciating to endure.

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Wilder’s final credit, according to IMDb.com, was performing vocal work on the children’s series Yo Gabba Gabba! in 2015. His last live action appearance was a two-episode guest starring stint on Season 5 of NBC’s Will & Grace (2002–2003) as Mr. Stein, the peculiar business partner of Will’s retired boss.

So long, Gene Wilder. Thanks for the all the marvelous melancholy madness.

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