Gene Wilder: The Candy Man is Gone

Gene Wilder in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Gene Wilder, who starred in 29 films including Bonnie and Clyde,Young FrankensteinWilly Wonka & the Chocolate FactoryBlazing Saddles and Silver Streak died of complications caused by Alzheimers in his home on Monday. Wilder was 83 and had not acted for years. It was his role as Willy Wonka, the candy man who invites the holders of golden tickets to his factory that Wilder is best known.

But the actor, writer, producer and director was a personal favorite for his work in not just “Young Frankenstein” but “Blazing Saddles” and the original “The Producers” holding his own against Zero Mostel who played Max Bialystock to his Leo Bloom.

It was his Victor Frahnkenstein however that proved this gentle actor could effortlessly play the comedy, as he alway had, straight and brilliantly.  When “Young Frankenstein” was released in 1974 I and a group of friends watched the film repeatedly. We got so all of us could recite lines from the entire film. (i still know quite a number of them.) It became a contest, to see who could watch the movie the most.

Yes it had a cast to die for, and sadly almost all the cast have passed on. (With the exception of Cloris Leachman – Frau Blücher, “neigh,” and Teri Garr  – Inga,  “What knockers! Zhank you Herr Doctor.”) But it was Wilder who made the film connect, his penchant for comedy was the cohesion the film needed. (The scene where Inga worries he has not “touched his food” and Victor slaps his hands onto the plate and snarls, “There. Happy now?” is just brilliant and example of his magic.)

Wilder had an aura of gentle sadness that pervaded any role he played. With Victor he was an eventual megalomaniac who creates life.  At the start of the film, he is calm and even a little cold, but not genteel or sad. His Frankenstein was different from the other roles he played.

As Wille Wonka, Wilder emitted a sort of whimsical melancholy that shielded a deeper and, sometimes, quite sinister side to this benevolent benefactor.

The love of Gene Wilder’s life was Gilda Radner, an  original alumnus of Saturday Night Live and they were married for five short years before she died from cancer. Wilder eased away from acting after her death and never really returned to his former status.  His last acting role was the voice of Elmer in Yo Gabba Gabba!.

Wilder worked with Mel Brooks three times and costarred with the comedian Richard Pryor in four films.  Brooks, like Pryor brought out the best in Gene. Each had a chemistry together, Pryor and Wilder’s on screen and Brooks and Wilder working as a team in front of and behind the camera.

The iconic comic actor was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, the same year his wife Gilda died.

Wilder wrote and directed, as well as starred in, four films. Arguably these were not on par with his collaborations with Brooks or some of  his movies with Pryor but all were funny. The World’s Greatest Lover, a Valentino-type spoof where Wilder becomes the “new” Rudolph Valentino “Wow, look at those gams…” was poorly received by critics of the day but was a commercial success for the actor.

Gene Wilder may not have been overly prolific but his roles were all memorable. From his first role as the undertaker kidnapped by Bonnie and Clyde in the 1969 film of the same name to his role as Willy Wonka, Wilder crept into the hearts of fans the world over.

He was truly a “one of a kind” actor who has never been replicated.  Wilder had a persona that seemed to be an extension of his “real” self. A kind and gentle man who made people laugh in the cinema.

RIP Mr. Wilder. You made me laugh numerous times at the movies.  Your personal tale of woe with the talented Gilda Radner made me cry.  You were already missed, by your absence on our screens, although you did appear sporadically, it was never enough.

Gene Wilder, gone at 83.  An iconic comic performer who stole our hearts with his Candy Man;  Willy Wonka and made us weep with laughter with his mad scientist Victor Frankenstein has left the stage and can never be replaced. Our thoughts go out to his family and friends.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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