RIP to the incomparable Gene Wilder. A true comedic genius. You filled so many childhoods, mine included, with wonder, laughter, and joy. Thank you. Wilder’s death is difficult like Robin Williams’ death was difficult. I think we feel closer to people who make us laugh.
Here’s his family’s statement:
I think Kyle Smith sums it up well here. “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is just another failed, weirdly disturbing kids movie without Wilder (as you can see in the horrible remake with Johnny Depp). Instead, it lives forever because of him.
In his first notable role, a walk-on in 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Wilder only had a couple of minutes of screen time, but he made them count as a meek bystander who gets himself kidnapped by the Barrow Gang and tries to get a grip on himself as the bank robbers tease him. Caught up in the high as he starts to think he might actually survive, he is hooting at their jokes when someone asks him what he does. “I’m an undertaker,” he says quietly. It’s a surgical puncture wound to the fun. “Get him out of here,” says Bonnie.
Just a year later, Wilder made his name with a supporting role in a very small movie that proved to have a very long life: “The Producers.” Zero Mostel was a looming comic zeppelin meant to dominate the movie, but it’s Wilder, morphing from a timorous accountant into a blithering hysteric, who created a series of character arcs — a character roller coaster. Wilder got an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor and a promotion to big-time leading man.
Wilder’s greatest performance, little recognized at the time, was as the mysterious king of candy in 1971’s “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, ” a total flop on its initial release that, thanks to regular broadcasts on NBC over Thanksgiving weekend, became an indelible classic. As was evident from Johnny Depp’s hideously off-kilter choice to turn Wonka into a high-voiced man-child pervert seemingly modeled on Michael Jackson, everything hinges on Wonka’s balance, his mystery. Is he a sadistic child hater with a knack for creative torture, or is he merely a big-hearted father figure who yearns for a deserving heir he can lavish with all of the wonders of paradise? It was Wilder’s idea to introduce Wonka with a pathetic limp that turns into an expert somersault: The audience wouldn’t know whether to believe anything about Wonka after that. As with “The Wizard of Oz,” the film captured the essence of childhood — a journey into a frightening landscape of undreamt-of perils and pleasures. Wilder’s increasingly threatening sprechstimme as he sings a bizarrely unnerving song during the infamous tunnel sequence provides the nightmare that makes the film’s final resolution such a glorious epiphany.
Making the 1976 road comedy “Silver Streak” gave Wilder yet another boost — his character’s blackface portrayal of a stereotypical jive-talking dude was seen as comedy gold at the time, though it would probably get movie theaters burned down today. Wilder finally got the chance to play off Richard Pryor, who had co-written “Blazing Saddles” but had been nixed for the co-lead of the black sheriff (a role that went to Cleavon Little) because Warner Bros. was worried about his drug problems.
TCM will be doing a tribute to Wilder next month. Here’s the schedule: