Gene Wilder died on Sunday night at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83.
Funny never dies.
That’s the first thing that came to my mind when I heard of Gene Wilder’s death on Monday. Some things are eternal and as long as there’s memes and late-night cable, there will always be room in this world for Mr. Wilder.
But is that simply it?
I don’t think so.
Wilder famously shared an anecdote of when he was eight (then known as Jerry Silberman) growing up in Milwaukee. His mother was infirmed because she had recently suffered a heart attack and after an exam by their family physician the doctor pulled his arm and said, “Don’t ever argue with your mother — you might kill her.”
Instead, he said, “try to make her laugh.”
And that was it. A star was born.
Or at least that’s what I always wanted to believe and what I did believe for a long time. Some of us wander around these unwalled corridors for an entire lifetime — and then some — looking for that thing, that whatever-it-is that’s supposed to make us us. And I suppose the more man evolves, rather, devolve through technology and communication literally at arm’s length, the further we get from whatever it is that’s supposed to be — what we’re supposed to be.
We get confused by images, by what we’re supposed to look like, act like, feel at a certain. What or where or who we’re supposed to eat, drink, drive, show sympathy for, show anger towards, ruminate on. What we need to acquire to be happy and what’s too much that will tip us back to unhappy.
But Wilder née Silberman, he seemed to get it right away. Nothing’s really funny, but everything when examined, is. Also, make someone smile and it will extend their life.
There’s a third thing too, exemplified by a scene in Stir Crazy when another prisoner, Grossberger — a tough and mean and giant man is dining alone. Wilder’s character looks upon him with kindness: “I see what it is,” he says. “Nobody has ever sat down and honestly talked to that man…poor kid.”
He gets up and strolls over to Grossberger and says a cordial-and-sing-songy-nervous Hello. Grossberger stands up and growls, scaring Wilder’s inexperienced inmate across the cafeteria:
Isn’t that so true of all of us? We want to try to do the right thing. We want to be the bigger person. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt and try to find the best in them as a means of bringing out the best in ourselves.
But when that time finally comes, we tend to run away at the slightest boo.
Wilder, more than any comedic actor I can think of, was best at locking his buggy eyes on his subject (oftentimes you) and not letting go tell well after you do. There is a certain kind of guilt that goes into watching a Wilder performance. It’s that he’s holding you for so long you can’t help but try to distract yourself. This is probably most notably manifest during Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — perhaps Wilder’s most memorable on-screen turn as the titular chaotically eccentric chocolatier.
It wasn’t until I watched it recently however, that I noticed with everything that’s going on on screen, from the singing, to the Oompa Loompas, to Augustus getting sucked up into the chocolate river, to the psychedelic boat ride, one cannot help but keep their eyes fixed on Wilder the entire time. Was that the intent of the film? Or was that Wilder and all his little psychoses and ticks taking over?
Drafted into the Army in 1956, he worked as an aide in a psychiatric ward, helping to administer electroshock therapy to patients. When he was discharged, he shed Jerry Silberman and became Wilder. His surname from Thornton Wilder and Gene is from a Thomas Wolfe novel. He took acting classes from Lee Strasberg, tried to get jobs and married a woman he said he started to tire of on the drive to their Honeymoon.
He repeated the mistake again before famously marrying Gilda Radner, the world’s funniest
woman person and a wife he lost to cancer in 1989. He beat it. And in his 2005 autobiography “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art”, Radner comes off as a handful in real life (he gave her credit for the title, a phrase that she thought sounded interesting.) She was needy, bulimic and insecure and when she tried to get pregnant, doctors diagnosed her with ovarian cancer — a disease that took her at 42.
“She was sick for a long time,” longtime friend Dom DeLuise once told the Washington Post. “I was at a dinner party at Mel Brooks’s house and Gilda came in, with no hair, wearing a scarf around her head, kissing everyone and saying, ‘I’m still here, I’m still here.’ When she passed away, no matter what you said to Gene, his face didn’t move. He was just stunned and numb.”
Wilder’s fourth wife, Karen Boyer, who he married in 1991 and remained so until his death Sunday, was the one he described as the love of his life.
After ruling the ‘70s with Willie Wonka, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein a few missteps in the ‘80s including some flops behind the camera, and Wilder was essentially forced into retirement by 1990. He said he would have gone back in front of the lens, but wasn’t getting the scripts: “It’s mostly stuff that they think I can make funny,” he said. “I can’t.”
Wilder likely would have thrived (think Alan Alda in Horace and Pete) with a third act in today’s post-funny, post-scripted, post-joke tragic age of comedy. After all, it was the ambiguous and truly sad that Wilder knew worked best as material.
From his book:
We never talked about sex in my family when I was growing up. The only time I came close to asking about it was when I was in second grade and I was walking home from school with two other boys. We saw a naked lady through her living room window, lying on a sofa, scratching her tush while she read a book. When she saw three little boys staring at her, she jumped up and closed the curtains. We ran away, and I heard one of the boys use the word “fuck.” When I got home, I didn’t tell my mother about the naked lady, but I did ask her what “fuck” meant.
“You want to know what “fuck” means?” she asked, as she pulled me into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She ran a bar of Ivory Soap under the water and stuck it in my mouth. “There! Now you know what fuck means.”
So, there you have it, the life of Gene Wilder. Son of a sick mother. An Army career in shock therapy. Several tries at marriage, including becoming the most famous widower on the planet — before getting it right. Fighting and beating cancer. And letting us all know, ultimately, what the fuck fuck means.
A man who showed us that funny, when gotten right, never dies. Rather, it lives a thousand lives.