Yesterday, the world mourned the passing of legendary comedic actor Gene Wilder. Wilder, 83, passed away after battling with Alzheimer’s. A few of Pop-Break’s staff members got together to share their thoughts on the career of a man with “the constant twinkle in his eye.”
Bill Bodkin: Gene Wilder was my comedy gateway drug. When I was young, I remembered him as Willy Wonka. He dazzled me with his wild eyes, and equally wild hair. He captivated me with his soft voice, and sometimes frightened me with his violent outbursts.
That’s the Gene Wilder I knew as a kid.
Then one day, my dad decided it was okay for to meet the other Gene Wilder — the Gene Wilder directed by Mel Brooks. The film was Blazing Saddles. It was airing on WPIX Channel 11 in New Jersey (now a CW Network affiliate). There was a lot of obvious jokes that had me rolling on the ground laughing — the campfire scene, Mongo punching a cow, Cleavon Little taking himself hostage, and the crazy meta ending (which I enjoy more and more every time I see it). But I didn’t fully understand Gene Wilder’s performance. It was kinda subtle. Kinda quiet. I was 12, I thought Ace Ventura was the greatest movie ever, so of course I wasn’t going to “get” Gene Wilder.
Then one year I bought my dad Young Frankenstein on VHS for his birthday. I was in high school, and one Sunday, when the New York Giants were on a bye week, we watched the whole thing. That’s when I discovered the utter brilliance of Gene Wilder. His performance as Victor Frankenstein (FRAHNKEN-STEEN!) was and still is one of the most amazing comedic performances I’ve ever witnessed. It’s subtle, its manic. It’s clever, it’s crass. It’s absurd, and it’s amazing. Everything he did was just a masterclass in comedic acting. God, I can just go back and watch him perform over and over in that role.
And forever changed Gene Wilder for me. I was able to see his subtle and neurotic blend of humor in everything he did — Willy Wonka was a brand new experience for me. As was Blazing Saddles. So was the Silver Streak. The Frisco Kid. The Producers. Everything he touched was magic. Even his role on Will & Grace was an exercise in his magic.
It’s sad that younger generations, or even my generation never got to see Wilder perform over the last decade or so. I think, had his health not been compromised, he would’ve delivered even more of his magic.
Thank you, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for opening my eyes to comedy in new and fascinating ways. Thank you, for your pure imagination.
Jennifer Amato: On a recent trip to California, I had a lot of time to kill on the airplane. My airline did not offer seat back TVs, so I had to use my iPad to watch a movie using the airline’s app. Young Frankenstein was one of the choices, so my father and I put one earbud in each of our ears and proceeded to laugh together for the next hour and a half.
Aside from Willy Wonka, I had never seen a movie with Gene Wilder. I couldn’t believe how talented he was. His deadpan humor, his facial expressions, his on queue timing made the movie.
I was so happy we decided to watch Young Frankenstein. It made me want to watch more of Wilder‘s movies.
Daniel Cohen: Gene Wilder could roll out of bed and be funny. He’s that actor your dad loved anytime his movies popped up on TBS. His mannerisms and delivery, both manic and deadpanned, is what every comedian strived for. He’s one of the grandest comic performers to ever grace the screen. While his most iconic role was no doubt playing the eccentric candy maker, Willy Wonka, there’s a reason he was attached to the hip of Mel Brooks for so long.
We know Mel Brooks is comedy royalty. He may even be king. There’s no doubt some of his more iconic films wouldn’t be half as good had it not been for Gene Wilder. He’s a legend in the western comedy Blazing Saddles, playing drunk hot shot, Jim, the Waco kid. Here’s one of his better speeches to newly appointed sheriff, Bart:
Young Frankenstein showed Wilder in all his versatility. He deadpans. Goes nuts. He even dances. A few years ago, I counted down the Top 10 Funniest Moments from Young Frankenstein. In the #2 spot, I simply put “Gene Wilder’s Performance.” If you watch the clip about accepting his failure with dignity and grace, you can see Wilder switch from one comedic spectrum to the other in a matter of seconds. He wasn’t just a performer though. Wilder shared an Oscar nomination with Mel Brooks for also penning Young Frankenstein.
While his work with Mel Brooks is cemented forever, Wilder will be most remembered for Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971). You get all the comedy you would expect from Wilder, including some of the most well-crafted, well delivered lines of all time. “The suspense is terrible…I hope it will last.” You also get the gentler side of Wilder’s acting, which puts him right up there with Robin Williams as a true thespian.
This one really hits home. As someone who admires comedy a great deal, Gene Wilder remained at the top of his game for decades. His work transcends childhood and adulthood. As kids, we remember him as Willy Wonka. As a grown man, I remember him for being a true master at his craft.