Sunday, October 16, 2016

Goodbye, Gene Wilder

There’s a scene in Blazing Saddles where Cleavon Little’s Bart watches the Waco Kid, played by Gene Wilder, drink from the bottle. “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die,” Bart says. Wilder looks at Bart with his blues eyes, half-sighs and asks, “When?” This is a Mel Brooks film, so a wisecrack is right around the corner (“Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me... Jim”), but it’s impossible not to be struck by the absolute pathos Wilder lends this one word.

Wilder died last Sunday in his home in Stamford, Connecticut, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was one of the great comic actors, capable of inspired hysteria and uncanny poise. From his first onscreen appearance as one half of a couple taken hostage in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), he seemed to be less in a hurry than other comic actors to get to the punchline. Of particular beauty was his voice, which would range up and down and sideways while his features, more often than not, remained impassive.

He had an electric start to his career: The brief role in Bonnie and Clyde was followed by his first starring role, as Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers (1967). He was exquisitely funny as the sheep-loving doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and very sensible casting as the titular chocolatier in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). He made two more films with Brooks: Blazing Saddles (1974) and the brilliant Young Frankenstein (1974) (which he co-wrote). He acted with Richard Pryor—Brooks’ original choice for Bart in Blazing Saddles—in 1976’s Silver Streak; the pair would go on to star in three more films.

From the late ‘70s onwards, the roles weren’t as memorable, though Wilder still found ways to be funny and empathetic. I have vivid recollections, from the early days of Indian cable TV, of Wilder spoofing Rudolph Valentino in The World’s Greatest Lover (1977). After 1991, he quit the movies, preferring to act on TV, write and paint.

One could say that Wilder never achieved as much as he seemed to promise. Yet, another way of looking at his career is that he had one of the hottest extended streaks in the history of film comedy. Between 1967 and 1974, he acted in five films that’ll go down as major or minor classics, and others that were merely very good. He may have faded from the public memory somewhat, but his death will hopefully rekindle memories of Willy Wonka and the Waco Kid, Dr Frankenstein and Leo Bloom.

This piece appeared in Mint.

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