I first met Gene Wilder—for dinner—when he was about to fly west and play a lead in a film I’d written called Stir Crazy. He seemed very distraught, to the point of losing consciousness. With the help of the waiter, we revived him and found out what troubled him was that he hadn’t the faintest clue as to how to play the character (he was a slavish admirer of my novel Stern and was nervous about making a mistake on something I’d written). After the waiter and I had calmed him down, I said one word: Candide. He immediately brightened and knew how to play the part. Everything’s fine, everything’s going to be great, it’s a Richard Pryor, even though we’re in prison for 110 years. Off he went, and I didn’t see him until the picture was in production.
There’s a moment in the film when he’s supposed to act crazy in the prison to get relieved from some duties, and he felt he needed my help, which was preposterous because he woke up in the morning crazy. I did what I could and later on, I made a visit to the set and saw him beside the mechanical bull that was used to practice for the real bull he’d be riding in the rodeo. He was petting the mechanical bull and saying, “Nice horsey.” I didn’t write “nice horsey,” I would never write “nice horsey,” my characters don’t say “nice horsey.” Bedwetters say “nice horsey.” So I was a bit irritated and left the set. Richard Pryor caught up with me and turned the situation around, saying, “I never met a writer like you. Take the money, don’t take any shit, and you’re out of here. I have $50 in cash, I believe I’ll do the same.”
The Times dismissed Stir Crazy as a mess. I believe they may have called it an “energetic” mess. My experience previous to that had been in the theater, and a review like that would have caused the play to close in one night. As I was to find out, the movies work in a different way. I’d pretty much crossed off Stir Crazy and gone on to do other work, but I decided on a whim to visit a theater in the East ’60s to see if any loyal friends had gone to see the movie. As it turned out, both performances were sold out. I thought it might be some sort of benefit so I took a cab uptown to a triplex and saw a line as far as the eye could see. I wondered what movie they were waiting to see and I asked one fellow in line, and he said it was Stir Crazy.
So the film went on to become a monster hit. I congratulated Gene, of course, and didn’t see much of him. Although by a strange coincidence, in this period, he married Gilda Radner, who was my wife’s roommate at Michigan. Very strange. I’d meet Gene now and then, have a casual chat with him, and come away feeling that he was a very sweet and decent man with a will of iron when it came to his performing. He had dreamed of becoming a serious actor and was cast as a clown. To play a clown brilliantly, as he did, you would have to be a serious actor. He was both a serious actor and a brilliant clown. My hope is that he’ll receive a warm welcome in comedy heaven.
Gene Wilder died at 83 this week.