A few nights ago, Mel Brooks told Jimmy Fallon about the first time he met Gene Wilder. Wilder was playing the Chaplain in a New York production of "Mother Courage." which featured Brooks' wife Anne Bancroft in the lead. During intermission, Wilder groused about not understanding why the audience was laughing at him.
"I pointed to the mirror and said, 'Look in the mirror! Blame it on God!'" Mel said.
I first met Gene Wilder, so to speak, when I was thirteen and saw "The Producers" It was love at first sight. I still think the "Blue Blanket" scene near the beginning of that film is the most brilliant exhibition of comic frenzy from any performer in memory. If any actor was born to play frustration, it was Gene Wilder, and that was why Mel Brooks cast him. In Wilder's Washington Post obituary, Brooks was quoted as calling Wilder "an Everyman with all the vulnerability showing. One day, God said, 'Let there be prey,' and he created pigeons, rabbits, lambs and Gene Wilder."
Yet Wilder--who looked like a cross between Harpo Marx and the Angel Gabriel--was perfectly capable of being more than just prey. His performance as the title character in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" had a delightful frisson of danger as, with a quietly crazed look in his eye, he led the Golden Ticket children into a series of sweet but sinister wonders. Mel Brooks sensed the calm in the eye of Wilder's storm when he cast him as the Waco Kid in "Blazing Saddles," shooting the guns out of outlaws' hands without uncrossing his arms. Sometimes Wilder could be predator and prey all at once, as he was as Frederick Frankenstein (or Frodrick Fronkensteen, if you prefer) in "Young Frankenstein." Or he could just be an average Joe in a ridiculous situation, as he was in "Silver Streak," forced to accept Richard Pryor's tutelage on how to be black.
Gene Wilder had his share of tragedy: the early death of his mother, the early death from cancer of his wife Gilda Radner, his own bouts with lymphoma and the Alzheimer's Disease that eventually killed him. But his fourth wife--a speech therapist who helped him learn lip reading for the movie, "See No Evil, Hear No Evil"--and a large extended family provided him love and support. After his death, his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he never revealed his Alzheimer's because he didn't want to disappoint the children who saw him as Willy Wonka.
"He simply couldn't bear the thought of one less smile in the world," Walker-Pearlman said. That is a fitting epitaph for such a funny, gentle, dignified man.