Gene Wilder has died. The actor, best known for his work with Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and other now-iconic roles, had been suffering from Alzheimer’s, a malady that like David Bowie and cancer he wasn’t public about. As many have pointed out, where some comedians struggle for decades to get one or two big memorable roles, it’s easy to pick out 10 from Wilder’s filmography. Everyone’s list will be different and each one will still be right.
My own introduction to Wilder came in the form of both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein. Both were movies I watched incessantly on home video back in the day and both showed me something I’d never seen in comedies before: Pathos.
Wilder’s performance in Wonka is the very definition of sublime. While Wonka is supposed to be a generally good, of somewhat narcissistic, character, Wilder gave him the glint of the merry trickster that it took me years to decode. He’s Puck, merrily playing his games and moving his own agenda along. In the famous introduction to Wonka, a sequence he himself insisted on because he said it would throw all the character’s future actions into question, he squints and glowers at the assembled crowd before fooling them all and rolling into a grand, joyful greeting. He establishes the entire arc of the movie in less than a minute without saying a word.
Likewise in Young Frankenstein, he adds a human element to the story and is the only one who never tips his hand as to the parody at play in the story. He plays the character completely straight and lets the chaos erupt around him. That’s exemplified no better than in the scene where he goes to the room where they’ve locked up the monster to try and reason with him, going from brave to calling out for his mommy in a heartbeat. And he makes it all completely natural.
There are a number of other performances of Wilder’s you can pull out. His work with Brooks is outstanding. While I was never a fan of his movies with Pryor, I recognize I’m in the minority with that opinion. And Haunted Honeymoon remains a nostalgic favorite. More than that, he was obviously a man of character, turning down what I’m sure was a steady stream of roles that would have played to people’s perceptions of him but which he, for whatever reason, found wanting, including a reported offer to appear in the upcoming Ready Player One adaptation. That means he won’t get the career-capping performance like Jerry Lewis just enjoyed in Max Rose. Which is a bummer.
Wilder was a legend and his legacy endures.