In Memory of Gene Wilder
June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016
For most people (other than those who knew him personally, I’d imagine), Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka. His turn as the eccentric chocolatier created by Roald Dahl stood the test of time, so much so that (for me personally) I still prefer his version to Johnny Depp’s (and I love Johnny Depp’s work, generally). Though more so than Wonka, for me Gene Wilder is most memorable as the doctor who is trying to run from his destiny, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced, Fronkonshteen).
Young Frankenstein holds the distinction of being both my favourite Mel Brooks film and my favourite Gene Wilder film–though admittedly I’ve seen more films directed by Brooks than starred Wilder. It’s even one of my favourite comedies of all time. Aside from my love of monsters (which assuredly helps), the film was so well executed. It’s enjoyable on every level (as many of Brooks’ films are, because they don’t take themselves too seriously), and the cast of the film was great. Along with Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles, I would say it’s probably one of Mel Brooks’ seminal pieces, and Wilder’s portrayal of Dr. Fronkonshteen was exceptional.
It’s unfortunate to write that, despite his solid place in my memories of childhood movies and his continued relevance to me now, that I don’t know much about Gene Wilder. Typically I like to learn a bit about actors, filmmakers and writers whose work I enjoy, but Wilder has always been an enigma. I know, for certain, he was very good at what he did, and I once recall hearing Mel Brooks say that Gene Wilder took his comedy very seriously (likely in Mel Brooks: Make a Noise) which I thought was remarkable and such a stark contrast to how I imagine Brooks himself works. I also know that after the death of his third wife, Gilda Radner, he seemed to disappear from the public eye, though he did eventually remarry.
I know also that Wilder eventually left acting to pursue a writing career full-time (Wilder had written screenplays before, including for Young Frankenstein) and to all appearances it seems that decision came from a lack of satisfaction in the types of movies Hollywood is now producing [timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/interview-gene-wilder]. Regardless of those decisions, the films he did appear in were wonderful and in some cases, groundbreaking (such as Blazing Saddles).
Though regardless of how well I knew Gene Wilder or not, one thing is clear: the creative culture has lost another great talent. 2016 has been quite unique this way, and I write that with a heavy heart. Many legendary creatives and entertainers have died in the past nine months (as is partially notable by the fact that #51 is the fifth Gentleman Cthulhu comic dedicated to someone’s passing, and that does not account for all of those lost this year). It does give one reason to pause.
Though, in light of Wilder stating that he was “tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D” [timeout.com/newyork/things-to-do/interview-gene-wilder] that are so prevalent in films today, and considering how seriously he took the art of making people laugh and feel joy, I do hope this little comic is doing something toward that end. After all, we could all use a few more smiles in day.