Gene Wilder was such a brilliant actor that he fooled audiences into believing one of his most revered creations, Willy Wonka, was something other than a magnetizing Nazi goon offering kids a Golden Ticket to his chocolate gas chamber.
Read some of the nonsense that’s been written about Wilder’s performance in the wake of his death Sunday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Variety’s Richard Natale went so far as calling Herr Vonka, “one of (Wilder’s) most beloved and gentle characters.” Gentile, yes. Gentle, never!
It was at Wilder’s insistence that the character of the chocolate baron be given a dark, bittersweet flavor. Wonka first appears before the children walking with the aid of a cane, only to moments later break into a somersault. Credit Wilder’s pure imagination for the inspired touch, and it was so important to the actor that his participation in the project depended on it.
When director Mel Stuart asked why the somersault, Wilder replied, “From that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.” Stuart prodded, “If I say no, you won’t do the picture?” to which Wilder replied, “I’m afraid that’s the truth.”
One more Nazi note before moving on. According to The Daily Chronicle, the role of the man who forged the fifth winning ticket was played by Hitler’s henchman, Martin Bormann. Still find the notion far-fetched?
Gene Wilder was comedy’s answer to Robert Ryan, a frizzle-topped neurotic who mined hysteria to unmask satirical gold. Twas Wilder, not Peter Sellers or nervous counterpart Woody Allen, who was the face of ’70s comedy.
He first came to audience’s attention as undertaker Eugene Grizzard, kidnapped along with his girlfriend by the Barrow Gang in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Wilder uses his five or so minutes of allotted screen time as a calling card, converting an otherwise anonymous bit part into an unforgettable debut. Later that year, Wilder’s performance as certified neurotic accountant Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’s The Producers earned him an Oscar nomination.
Like most great movie clowns not afforded the services of a skilled ringleader, Wilder’s work exemplifies the art of comic as auteur. He was not the most versatile performer. (When what you’re selling is Gene Wilder, who needs puttying?) Only once did he assume an accent (Quackser Fortune has a Cousin in the Bronx), and his star forays into drama were a pair of 1999 movies for A&E (Murder in a Small Town, The Lady in Question) both signed by Joyce Chopra (Smooth Talk, The Lemon Sisters).
With all due respect to Mel Brooks – his trio of Wilder comedies (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein) all deserve a spot in the Pantheon of Laughter – one wonders what might have happened had Wilder teamed up with a director whose talent behind the camera rivaled that of Wilder’s performances. Other than Ms. Chopra, the closest he came was playing a frontier rabbi in Robert Aldrich’s underrated Frisco Kid or a bit role in Stanley Donen’s instantly forgettable adaptation of The Little Prince.
Favorite Wilder feat? If Disney convinced audiences that an elephant can fly, Wilder (along with Woody Allen) proved it possible for a successful doctor to find mature love with an underage sheep. Wilder’s prolonged reactions bring to mind Jack Benny, his frozen-faced disbelief a veritable textbook on how to milk a laugh.
Thursday’s Game (TV, 1974)
The death of his second wife, Gilda Radner, in 1989 signaled the loss of two comedic geniuses. The pain was such that two years later Wilder retired from movies. He was 83.
Included is a link to the greatest Gene Wilder performance you’ve never heard of, a TV movie called Thursday’s Game. There’s no better way to celebrate the man’s legacy than with a few solid belly laughs.