Gene Wilder, 1933–2016

Men don’t like to be called sweet, not by women and especially not by men. Strength — real, imagined, fake or otherwise — remains the primary virtue assigned to manhood.

Still and all, I gotta say: Gene Wilder was sweet.

And kind, and goofy, and funny and wildly imaginative. He belonged on the cover of a children’s book, or at least in the movie version. Which he was, because he was Willy Wonka on the big screen, with big blue eyes and a soft, welcoming voice, inviting children to come on in to the chocolate factory.

He was a different kind of man, a leading man in the movies, but not your usual kind of leading man (although he did play the Waco Kid in “Blazing Saddles,” Mel Brooks’s spoof of Westerns, which should have killed the genre off forever but didn’t).

He was married four times, most famously to Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live star, who seemed to be a perfect, offbeat other half for Wilder, with her own brand of thin, sweet and sometimes surprisingly furious funny. It was a love match. He lost her to cervical cancer, and it seemed after that that he slowed down somewhat. In fact, he had not made a movie in a very long time, but he seemed to be always out there, even when only making occasional appearances on television, as he did on “Will and Grace.”

He was not the greatest stand-alone actor ever by any means. He thrived in partnerships and collaborations — with Mel Brooks and the whole Brooks menagerie of irregulars, and with Richard Pryor in a series of salt-and-pepper films, at least two of which were wildly funny classics, before Pryor succumbed to his habits and to Multiple Sclerosis.

“Silver Streak,” about a murder on a train, in which Pryor tries to teach Wilder how to walk like a black man, and “Stir Crazy,” about a bank-robbery frame-up, were funny and remain memorable. The partnership with Brooks on the other hand produced “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and, most importantly and forever a joyful gift, “Young Frankenstein,” for which Wilder wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay. It was classic Brooks-Wilder. Wilder said he was always trying to reign in Brooks and be more nuanced, while Brooks was encouraging him to be more crazy. That balance was nearly always just right in “Frankenstein” (or “Frankensteen,” as Wilder insisted, playing the main character).

There hasn’t been a more richly creative cast in a comic movie. It was as if you had a film that featured all of the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, with Lugosi and Karloff thrown in for fun. You had Wilder, at once elegantly aristocratic and bug-eyed as Frankensteen; the remarkably tender and big Peter Boyle as the Monster; Teri Garr as a sexy assistant with a bad German accent; the late and wonderful Madeline Kahn as the mad scientist’s wife (yodeling “Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life” while enjoying coital bliss with the Monster); Marty Feldman as Igor, his hump changing positions more often, and with more deception and grace, than Trump’s position on immigration; Cloris Leachman as the imposing hostess of the castle; and, in an uncredited and also unforgettable part, Gene Hackman as a blind hermit, sowing a destructive path of good deeds on the hapless Monster.

Did we forget that Frankensteen and the Monster did “Putting on the Ritz” in top hats and tails? It was a sublime moment and Wilder’s invention in a thoroughly sublime film.

Wilder didn’t like to be called a comedian or a comic actor; “I’m not very funny,” he insisted. And maybe we should give him his due. He was a serious person, full of sweet and funny bones in his body and mind. Check out “The Woman in Red” sometime, a movie from the 1980s that spoke with great but dark humor to how men trip over their shoes and other parts time and time again when confronted with beauty.

While “Young Frankenstein” is a noisy movie, it plays like a silent one. It’s an affectionate love song to 1930s horror movies, but it also harkens back to silent films, as does “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (which also allows Wilder to show off his fencing skills) and “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which was also a tribute to Rudolph Valentino.

The news of his death — from complications due to Alzheimer’s — on Aug. 29 at the age of 83 featured mostly “Wonka” clips. Though iconic, the film wasn’t indicative of his best work, although it has the status of a children’s cult classic, which the book’s author, Roald Dahl, known for his penchant for darkness, would have hated.

A relative said that Wilder passed away listening to “Over the Rainbow” sung by Ella Fitzgerald. That’s not bad. Somewhere over the rainbow, near the Transylvania Station, they’re wearing top hats, twirling a cane and puttin’ on the Ritz, hosting the arrival of Doctor Frankensteen, not Frankenstein.


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