Monday, August 29, 2016

Gene Wilder — 1933-2016

The world got a little more gloomier today.

With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”

Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred. (He directed, he once said, “in order to protect what I wrote, which I wrote in order to act.”) But he was best known for playing roles on the big screen that might have been ripped from the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama, “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, a year later in “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’s first film and the basis of his later Broadway hit.

Mr. Wilder played the security-blanket-clutching accountant Leo Bloom, who discovers how to make more money on a bad Broadway show than a good one: Find rich backers, stage a production that’s guaranteed to fold fast, then flee the country with the leftover cash. Unhappily for Bloom and his fellow schemer Max Bialystock, played by Zero Mostel, their outrageously tasteless musical, “Springtime for Hitler,” is a sensation.

The part earned Mr. Wilder an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. Within a few years the anxious, frizzy haired, popeyed Mr. Wilder had become an unlikely movie star.

He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance as the wizardly title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971). The film was a box-office disappointment, in part because of parental concern that the moral of Roald Dahl’s story — greedy, gluttonous children should not go unpunished — was too dark in the telling. But it went on to gain a devoted following, and Willy Wonka remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified.

His next role was more adult but equally strange: an otherwise normal doctor who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy in a segment of Woody Allen’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask” in 1972. Two years later, he reunited with Mr. Brooks for perhaps the two best-known entries in either man’s filmography.

In “Blazing Saddles,” a raunchy, no-holds-barred spoof of Hollywood westerns, Mr. Wilder had the relatively quiet role of the Waco Kid, a boozy ex-gunfighter who helps an improbable black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from railroad barons and venal politicians. The film’s once-daring humor may have lost some of its edge over the years, but Mr. Wilder’s next Brooks film, “Young Frankenstein,” has never grown old.

Mr. Wilder himself hatched the idea, envisioning a black-and-white film faithful to the look of the Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” down to the laboratory equipment, but played for laughs rather than horror. He would portray an American man of science, the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein, who tries to turn his back on his heritage (“that’s Frahn-kahn-SHTEEN”) but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Transylvania to duplicate his grandfather’s creation of a monster in a spooky mountaintop laboratory.

Mr. Brooks’s original reaction to the idea, Mr. Wilder recalled, was noncommittal: “Cute. That’s cute.” But he eventually came aboard as director and co-writer, and the two garnered an Oscar nomination for their screenplay.

Rest in peace.

One bark on “Gene Wilder — 1933-2016

  1. RIP, Precious Funny Man!!
    DAMN THAT ALZHEIMER’S!! I know he was 83, but he didn’t deserve having this disease & suffering for, who knows how long. A man that gave so much laughter, gets a sentence like this.
    Thanks, Bobby!

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