Remembering Gene Wilder: 1933 - 2016

By Scott Kurland

Gene Wilder died a week ago, and I still hadn’t written this obituary. I put it off as long as I could. I should have written it sooner, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want to believe Gene Wilder was dead. It might be because he was such an icon or the fact that 2016 has taken away so many legends. Regardless, I’m tired of being sad. Deep down inside, I know that I have to write this obituary because he was an entertainer I loved so dearly. Wilder was suffering from Alzheimer’s, something he'd kept a secret from fans for quite some time. He wanted his fans to remember him as he was before he became ill, and I find that beautiful.

My father showed me more mature movies at a young age than anyone I knew growing up. I watched “Blazing Saddles”, “Young Frankenstien”, and “Silver Streak” at the tender age of eight and loved this curly-headed genius. Without being told, I knew I was watching a true performer blossom before my very eyes and shifting in every role he played. In my opinion, out of all his performances, I think Leopold Bloom is one of his most underrated. Granted, he was nominated for an Oscar, but "The Producers" is usually the fourth or fifth movie people bring up when they mention Wilder. When you watch his baby blanket melt down in the beginning of the movie, you see this explosion manifested from pure anxiety. I always liked to believe that Wilder was having that panic attack. Mel Brooks has been asked if Wilder was acting or too tired. Brooks always smiles, laughs, and dodges the question. Honestly, I don’t want to know the truth. It just adds to Gene’s charisma.

Of all his roles, I think my favorite is the Waco Kid from “Blazing Saddles”. In a film filled with over-the-top, zany performances- Wilder is the straight man. Each time I auditioned for a play or film, I’d always do his monologue about being the Waco Kid. Wilder’s subtlety and calm demeanor lead to some of the greatest lines in the film. “What is a dazzling urbanite like you doing in a rustic setting like this?” Or, “You've got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay, of the new West. You know... morons.” The Waco kid was never supposed to be played by Wilder. Originally, Mel Brooks went to John Wayne who said he loved the script, but it was too filthy. Then Brooks wanted Gig Young. He even had Young film a few scenes until he got a bad case of the DTS and got violently ill. That weekend, he called Wilder and sent him the script. Wilder flew out the next day with the script memorized and the rest was history.

Wilder means so much to so many people for different reason. There’s Fredrick “Fraunkensteen” Frankenstein in “Young Frankenstein;” a character so vain and over-the-top that you couldn't help but love how bonkers he was. My favorite scene from “Young Frankenstein” isn’t “Putin’ On The Ritz” or even the blind man scene. For me, the greatest scene in the film is when Wilder locks himself in the dungeon with Peter Boyle’s creature and begs to be let out. Watching Wilder go from being terrified to friendly, yelling “Hey there handsome!!!”; only to have Boyle look around, baffled, kills me every time. If you watch that scene, you can really see what a great performer Wilder was, he could change emotions on a dime. 

For years Wilder would constantly go to extremes in his performances; a fact that that has never been more true than in: “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory”. Some consider this Wilder’s greatest role to date and, I must say, it holds a warm spot in my heart. Willy Wonka was written as a devious and sly character in Dahl’s original book, something Wilder knew all too well. If you watch the film, you see how ominous and mysterious Wonka is. I think the reason why so many people young and old love that film is solely based on Wilder. The film is incredibly cheesy, and the dialog is sub par. However, Wilder makes the entire film magical. I re-watched  “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” this week, and I began tearing up when he started singing “Pure Imagination.” Wilder will always be Willy Wonka for me and, quite possibly, the rest of the world.

Gene Wilder was 83, and lived a full life in comparison to others we lost this year. It doesn’t matter that he hadn’t acted since 2003 or that he hid away from the public due to his illness. Gene Wilder was always on our minds in some form or another. The loss of Wilder is equal to that of losing a grandfather or a kindly uncle. 2016 has been one of the saddest years for death in recent memory. With the addition of Gene Wilder to the long list of Alan Rickman, David Bowie, and Anton Yelchin, the world grows a little dark and less magical. Here’s to you Gene. I hope you find your golden ticket in the great beyond. Rest in peace you man about talent.

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