When you think of the late actor, screenwriter, novelist, and director, Gene Wilder, you might think of Willy Wonka or Young Frankenstein. With seeming effortless ability, he made any of his many roles memorable, sad, and funny at once.
Wilder won over everyone with his gentle manner, natural wit, and often anxious personality. Like his unforgettable Frankenstein costar, Marty Feldman, who played Igor, Wilder had an exaggerated appearance, wide blue eyes and wild curly hair.
There was no forgetting Wilder; rather, he left an indelible mark on our culture and a legacy full of moments of laughter.
However, Wilder approached comedy as an actor, not a comedian.
“Don’t try to make it funny; try to make it real. I’m an actor, not a clown,” said of his approach to comedy.
Gene Wilder Didn’t Think He Was a Comedian
In fact, Wilder did not consider himself a comedian at all, as funny as he was. When he was 39 years old in 1975, he was quoted as saying:
“I am not a comedian,” he said. “More than anything, I am an actor. I wanted to find parts I couldn’t find. I don’t want to write just to write. I want to write mainly to find a part that I want to act. And I want to direct in order to protect what I wrote, which I wrote in order to act.”
On Why He Directed Movies
After Wilder starred in the now-iconic movie, Will Wonka & the Chocolate Factory in 1971, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein in ’74, he began his directing career. In 1975, he directed, acted, and starred in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.
That year he explained what he hoped to accomplish through directing:
“I don’t want to think of myself making great pictures. You start thinking in terms of great, and you start thinking of yourself, of your own ego. I want to make people laugh and cry and say, ‘Wasn’t that wonderful?'”
On Who He Made Films For
Wilder was down to earth about his ambitions and who his target audience would be. For example, he had the following quote about who his movies were created for, the average person who wanted a good story. He wanted to tell human stories “with people who are not perfect but who are definite in their characters.”
“I remember J. D. Salinger’s story, ‘Zooey.’ Zooey would imagine this fat lady sitting in Kansas City, sweating, swatting flies away. I picture her going to the movies on Friday night. She doesn’t know about cameras, lights, she wants a good story told honestly, without pretension I’m making films for that lady.”
On His ‘Great Blessing’
Gene Wilder had a tumultuous and tragic relationship with another icon, the comedian Gilda Radner. They went on to co-star in three movies together and were married in 1984. Wilder had been married twice before, and Radner had been married once before.
“We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact,” he once said of their relationship.
Up until the day she passed away in ’89, Wilder says he had one blessing that kept him going.
“I had one great blessing: I was so dumb,” Mr. Wilder said, “I believed even three weeks before she died, she would make it.”
In a later interview, Wilder said he had been “divinely stupid because everyone else seemed to know, but I thought she’d pull through.”
Listen to the couple gush about each other in 1986 from ET below:
On Testifying Before Congress
After Radner’s death, Wilder became a champion to raise awareness about Ovarian cancer, starting the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry. He also testified before Congress in 1991 about the need for increased testing for cancer.
“I don’t feel guilty about what happened. We were all so ignorant about ovarian cancer. That’s one of the reasons I went to Congress to testify. I don’t like giving speeches, it makes me nervous. But I kept hearing Gilda [Radner] shouting, “It’s too late for me. Don’t let it happen to anyone else.'”
See Wilder talk about Radner and his career in the 2005 video from CBS Sunday Morning below:
On Why He Stopped Doing Movies
In 2013, Wilder said he was turned off by the foul language and noise in modern movies.
“I didn’t want to do the kind of junk I was seeing,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t want to do 3D, for instance. I didn’t want to do ones where there’s just bombing and loud and swearing, so much swearing… can’t they just stop and talk instead of swearing?”
Although he didn’t appear in movies after ’91, Wilder authored six books, including a memoir.
See Wilder speak about this below from Newsy:
On His Inner Demons
In his 2005 memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” Wilder discusses frequent visits to a psychotherapist. Although introduced with a joke, he discussed “torments of sexual repression, guilt feelings, and his ‘demon,’ a compulsion, lasting several years, to pray out loud to God at the most embarrassing times and in the most embarrassing places. But never onstage or onscreen, where he felt free to be someone else,” according to the Times.
“I never thought of it as God. I didn’t know what to call it. I don’t believe in devils, but demons I do because everyone at one time or another has some kind of a demon, even if you call it by another name, that drives them.”
You can listen to Wilder read from his memoir below:
On the Secret to Success
Wilder had a simple message for those who yearn for success in the movie industry.
“Well, you know, success is a terrible thing and a wonderful thing. If you can enjoy it, it’s wonderful. If it starts eating away at you and they’re waiting for more from me, or what can I do to top this, then you’re in trouble. Just do what you love. That’s all I want to do.”
Gene Wilder, born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became a movie legend, passing away at age 83 in August, 2016. He had secretly endured Alzheimer’s disease.
After news of his passing, comedian Jim Carrey tweeted:
“Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there’s a heaven, he has a Golden Ticket.”
See more about Wilder from Vox:
Featured image: Screenshot via YouTube
Tina Gray is a freelance journalist, theatre enthusiast and aspiring author. She has a passion for telling stories through various mediums and regularly writes for various online publications. Her short stories will soon be published in her first volume. Currently, she resides in the San Fernando Valley and is studying screenwriting.