The day Gene Wilder died, one of the most up-voted posts on Reddit was a clip of the late actor’s “Pure Imagination” performance in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. And this makes sense. In just a few minutes, Wilder serenades viewers in a candyland with a gorgeous and somewhat emotional song about creativity, and seeing the beauty in what’s around, and having positive ambition. Wilder’s performance is graceful and legendary, and it deserves the millions of views it got that day—and forever.
My favorite Gene Wilder performance is in Young Frankenstein, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the stanchion of comedic films. But in June 2013, Wilder told the 92nd Street Y he didn’t actually think he was a funny person.
“What’s the biggest misconception people have about you?” asked film historian Robert Osborne. “What a comic, what a funny guy and all that stuff—and I’m not,” said Wilder, who at that point hadn’t made a film in over 20 years. “I’m really not, except in a comedy in films. But I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but nothing special … I don’t think I’m funny. I think I can be in the movies.” I’d say so:
During his interview with Osborne, Wilder is asked why he hasn’t been in many movies of late. Wilder responded by saying that he doesn’t really like the way movies are now, with the explosions and the 3-D and the swearing. Especially the swearing, said Wilder, who also authored six books.
“I didn’t want to do [movies] where there’s just bombing, and loud and swearing. So much swearing going on. [In one movie] someone said, ‘Oh go fuck yourself.’
“Well, if it’s leads to a meaningful place, I understand [the usage].” The crowd loved this quip.
He continued: “But if you go to some of the movies, when there’s swearing … can’t they just stop and talk, just talk, instead of swearing? And once in a while, it comes in handy… and that put me off a lot.” The entire interview is well worth a watch:
On Wednesday, Mel Brooks went on Jimmy Fallon’s talk show to speak about the loss of his dear friend and creative partner. “I’m still reeling from no more Gene,” he said. “I can’t call him…” Smartly, Fallon asked Brooks about the first time he met Wilder, and what that experience was like. Of course, it was hilarious. Brooks met Wilder backstage in 1963 in New York while Wilder was performing as a chaplain in Mother Courage and Her Children.
“[Gene] kept saying ‘Why are they laughing?’ The chaplain is a great part, it’s sad and funny and touching and it can be amusing. So he says, ‘Why are they always laughing at me, they’re laughing at me.’ So I said, ‘Look in the mirror, blame it on God.’
I’ll miss you, too, Gene Wilder, as will millions of others. Here’s a fantastic video of Wilder’s performances and his expert “comedic pause.”
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.