In 2005, Abigail Pogrebin published Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish. The following is an excerpt from the chapter about actor Gene Wilder, the star of Willy Wonka and Young Frankenstein, who died on Monday at the age of 83 from complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
HE MENTIONS GILDA right away. I thought it was a subject I’d have to work up to, but I haven’t been inside his 18th century Connecticut home for 10 minutes before he tells me it was hers. She bought it to escape show business. It’s also where she was planning to recover. “Gilda and I moved back from California thinking that she was cancer-free,” Wilder says with his famously soft voice, “and then three weeks later she found out it had come back.” Despite the fact that he’s happily remarried for the fourth time to a hearing specialist named Karen, whom I hear him call “Shug”—as in “Sugar”—Gilda seems to accompany him like a spirit. “She’s buried out here,” he says, gesturing vaguely to the grounds.
It’s an undeniable thrill to meet Willy Wonka in the flesh. I spent so many childhood hours watching him in his purple velvet coat and top hat, sipping from an edible flower, entreating Augustus not to drink from the chocolate stream; to this day I know his every inflection. And here he is before me, the man who was at one time the highest-paid film actor in America, the famous flyaway hair even more wispy, blue eyes just as blue, that small smile that barely curls the lips upward. In person, however, it’s clear he’s not just “The Candy Man”; his face reveals the Comic with a Requisite Life of Sorrows. Despite his current good health and good marriage, despite all the laughter he’s engendered in classics such as The Producers, Young Frankenstein, and Stir Crazy, the sadness or weariness is evident, and for good reason.
His mother died when he was fourteen. His second wife’s daughter, whom Wilder adopted, is estranged from him. His great love, Gilda Radner, died only five years after their wedding in 1984. Ten years later, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma, which he’s managed to fend off. When we meet, he’s nursing Karen’s mother through her dying days under their roof. I ask him whether Judaism has helped him through any of these hard times and he shakes his head. “I think Freud got me through,” he says. “When I was in desperate trouble for maybe eight or nine years, I went to a neuropsychiatrist.”
We’re sitting on a weathered orange-red leather sofa in his office—a haphazard but inviting room that looks like it has accumulated things over the years without any real plan. There’s an upright piano, a quilt draped over the piano seat, purplish wall-to-wall carpeting, a Macintosh computer on a wooden desk, videotapes on a shelf, and one or two of Wilder’s own watercolors—surprisingly skilled—on the walls.
“I’m going to tell you what my religion is,” Wilder announces, leaping to the point. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito.” (I can’t help hearing Wonka’s voice in the factory: “Finito!”) “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”
Wilder—formerly Jerome Silberman—says his Jewish background consisted of attending an Orthodox temple where his grandfather was president. His sister and mother had to sit separately—“not being equal to men,” he jokes sardonically. His father was born in Russia, his mother in Chicago, of Polish descent, and neither was particularly observant. But he was bar mitzvahed—“I don’t know to please whom,” he says. “I practiced singing the maftir a year before my bar mitzvah,” he says, referring to his designated Torah portion. “And I was so distraught—because I had a high soprano voice and no one could hear me in the temple when I started to sing. So I said, ‘I’m not going to be bar mitzvah if you don’t have microphones next year!’ And they put the microphones in. And then, of course, my voice changed.”
His father switched the family to a Conservative synagogue when they moved to a new neighborhood in Milwaukee, but Wilder jettisoned the temple visits altogether when he was offended by the rabbi. “I went back to visit Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and heard the ignorant rabbi giving his views on the Vietnam War, and I wanted to get up and start hollering at him. But I thought, ‘My mother and father will be embarrassed and their friends will say, Why did he do that?’ So I didn’t. But that’s the last time I went to a temple.”
When I ask whether Wilder was conscious of being in a minority growing up, he tells a doleful story. “My mother was very ill and she had heard from distant relatives that there was a military academy in Los Angeles [the Black-Foxe Military Institute]. And she talked my father into sending me to the military academy to stay there for a year. And I got so excited—I thought we’d be playing war games. I got there and I was the only Jew—I was 13—and they beat me up or insulted me every day that I was there.”
He tells me he fought back only once. I ask what happened. “I got beat up,” he replies flatly. “They didn’t hit my face: They’d make my arms black and blue, so when I came home for Christmas vacation, I was wearing long sleeves and my mother didn’t know right away. My mother had thought I was going to learn about sex, and how to play the piano, and bridge, and how to dance. I think she’d seen Tyrone Power in Diplomatic Courier. She asked me to play something on the piano and I played ‘Nobody Knows the Troubles I’ve Seen’ very badly. It was so bad and she was so disappointed, she walked out of the room, which was a cruel thing for her to do. And when I changed for dinner, I took off my uniform shirt and she walked in and saw all the bruises all over my body. And I started to cry. She’d had no idea. I’d written to my father, but he hadn’t told her. And she just held me.” Wilder’s voice has gotten quieter. His parents pulled him out of the school.
That wasn’t the last of the childhood hazing. He was mocked in junior high school, and he reproduces the jeering so quickly, I realize it’s at the tip of his memory. “ ‘Hey, Jew Boy! Why don’t you ask the Jew Boy?’”
I remark that this experience must have had some kind of impact. “I don’t know how it could not have,” Wilder allows. “But again, I didn’t associate it with any religious philosophy; only the fact that I was something called ‘Jewish’ and why did they hate me just because of it? I was always afraid to talk about the teasing at home because my mother was so ill.”
He felt no anti-Semitism once he started doing theater, but he changed his name anyway, when he was 28, as so many actors did. “It was 1961; I’d just been admitted to the Actor’s Studio. I’d been studying with Lee Strasberg in private classes using my name, Jerry Silberman, and I didn’t want to be introduced to Elia Kazan, Paul Newman, and Shelley Winters as ‘Jerry Silberman.’ ” He consulted a friend on possible alternatives and seized on “Wilder” because Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is his favorite play. “Gene” was chosen because he loved the lead character of Eugene in Thomas Wolfe’s play Look Homeward, Angel. He didn’t connect that it echoed his mother’s name until he was in therapy years later. “I was telling my analyst and she said, ‘Uh huh . . . By the way, what was your mother’s name again?’ Dot dot dot dot . . . And I said, ‘Jeanne.’ [He spells it.] J-E-A-N-N-E. I’d never thought of that.”
The only one who still calls him Jerry occasionally is his sister. I ask him if that name feels like him anymore. “When she says it, yes. But if someone hollered out ‘Jerry,’ I probably wouldn’t turn around.”
I ask him how it felt to play two classic Jewish film roles and he holds up one finger: “You mean one,” he corrects me.“In The Frisco Kid.” But what about Leo Bloom in The Producers? I ask. “Oh! Oh!” Wilder says with a smile, “I never thought of that. I suppose so. I never thought of it. Of course, Leo. Well, because Zero and Mel made it Jewish. But there was nothing overtly Jewish in the writing. Well, actually, I can’t say that either, because the way Mel writes, it is Jewishy, but not filled with Jewishisms.”
Leo Bloom in The Producers (1968) is the uptight accountant who conspires with a failing Broadway producer (Zero Mostel) to produce a guaranteed flop. In The Frisco Kid (1979), Wilder played on Orthodox Polish rabbi in the 1850s, Avram Belinski. Complete with long black coat, thick beard, and black hat, Belinski schleps his prized Torah across the plains on a grueling journey to his new congregation in San Francisco. The naive rabbi undergoes myriad hardships, several of which involve being mercilessly assaulted, until he hooks up with a tough cowboy, played by Harrison Ford.
Wilder needed to supplement his scant Jewish education to prepare for the role, so he hired two rabbis and a cantor. “The cantor recorded prayers for me on the tape recorder,” Wilder explains, “and I had to study to be able to sing them. Everywhere I went I had that recorder. Then for technical advice, I consulted one Conservative rabbi and one Reform rabbi. Just to answer questions for me. But the cantor was the most helpful. The idea of singing in Hebrew on-screen was something I would have instinctively rejected—‘How am I going to do that?’ But when I heard it on the tape recorder and I could repeat it and I knew what the words meant and the phrasing, and I could make it my own, then I could do it.”
I ask him if that role made him think about being Jewish. “A lot of it did come easily,” he answers. “I wrote a lot of that movie. Not the prayers, I mean,” he says with a chuckle, “but the dialogue. When I was writing I was thinking, ‘What would be funny for a rabbi to do?’ I didn’t think, ‘What would be funny for a Jew to do?’ I know I’m saying the same thing, but in my mind, it wasn’t. I am Jewish, so I don’t have to wonder, ‘What would a Jew do?’”
In one hilarious scene in the film, Rabbi Belinski has just been beaten, robbed, and abandoned by bandits in the desert when he spots a happily familiar sight in the distance: men in long black coats and black hats. He rushes toward them, assuming they’re Hasidim, frantically talking in Yiddish about his ordeal, when he realizes they’re not fellow Jews: They’re Amish. I ask him how he learned the Yiddish that he jabbered in the scene. “Oh, that was from Mel,” he says with a laugh. “I told him, ‘I want to get all excited when the Amish come; what can I say when I’m trying to talk to them and I think that they’re Jews and I want to tell them I was beaten up—” Suddenly he’s in character, accent and all. “ ‘They nearly killed me, they chopped me, they kicked my kishkes!’ And I asked Mel, ‘How would I say that in Yiddish?’ And Mel said, ‘You say, G-gyhagen machin dyhuda yhiddina . . . !!’ ” (It’s a rant of makeshift Yiddish that sounds like vintage Mel Brooks.) “I told Mel, ‘Wait! Wait!’ And I wrote it down. I got it all from Mel. Whether it makes any sense, I don’t know.”
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
Before Harrison Ford took the cowboy role, it was offered to John Wayne. “Wayne wouldn’t read it until we agreed to the usual price: $1 million, 10 percent of the gross,” Wilder says. “The studio stalled, haggled, finally said ‘OK.’ Wayne read it, he said, ‘I’ll do it. It’s a funny script.’ He was in Long Beach. I said, ‘Give him anything he wants— billing, or whatever. If he does this movie, then it won’t be perceived as a Jewish film; it will be a Western!’ And then one of the guys from Warner Bros. went out to Long Beach and tried to Jew him down”—he clearly uses the slur to make a point—“to $750,000, and Wayne quit. And so we lost John Wayne.”
I ask him if Harrison Ford ever mentioned being Jewish himself. “He probably said it.” Wilder seems foggy as to when, then remembers. “I think when we were in Greeley, Colorado. Harrison and I would go to dinner in a little pub that had a dartboard and we’d eat and then play darts afterwards. And at one point during some conversation, Harrison said, ‘Why do you say that? I’m half-Jewish.’ He certainly didn’t seem Jewish.”
Wilder met Gilda Radner doing Hanky Panky, directed by Sidney Poitier (1982). “I married a Catholic, then I married another Catholic, and then I married Gilda—she’s as Jewish as they come,” he says with a mischievous smile. Did he feel more Jewish while he was married to her? “Yeah, because she was so Jewish.” He laughs. “She was pretty young, but she talked like an old Jew. And her jokes and her kvetching—it would have been easier to take, but it was so Jewish when it came out. I used to say, ‘Do I have to listen to you kvetch in Jewish?’”
Her illness made him seek healing from wherever it might possibly come. “I went to a Buddhist master,” Wilder recalls. “He said, ‘If Gilda gets in trouble with pain, call me, and just put the phone wherever it hurts.’ ” Wilder’s tone suggests he believed in the touchy-feely ritual, but—“It’s bullshit,” he states abruptly. “Still, I did it. His telephone number was 322-U-GOD—something like that. Meaning: ‘The god is within you’ or ‘You are god.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m a Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist, I guess.’”
As someone who fears a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, I pay special attention to those who have managed to slog through it. So I can’t help wondering aloud if Wilder ever asked the proverbial question: How could God let this happen? “That ignorant question—and I say ‘ignorant,’ not ‘stupid’—never crosses my mind,” he says. “I would never have dreamed that God would favor you if you did this, and piss on you if you did that. If you pray for help, he or she or it will help you, and if you don’t pray, ‘I’m not going to help you.’ There couldn’t be any God that cruel or dumb or uncompassionate. So I don’t think, ‘How could that be?’
“In Unforgiven, when Clint Eastwood shoots Gene Hackman, Hackman says, ‘I’m building a house; this isn’t fair.’ Eastwood answers, ‘Fairness has nothing to do with it.’ ” (The film’s dialogue actually has Hackman saying, “I don’t deserve this. To die like this. I was building a house.” Eastwood replies, “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”) Wilder continues: “Fairness has nothing to do with it,” he quotes. “ That’s the answer to your question. The world is not based on fairness. Human beings can rise to fairness, can administer something that makes it fair or just. But that’s not God. When I was being radiated twice a day at Sloan-Kettering, they’d wheel me down there and I’d see these little kids—5, 6 years old—bald from the chemotherapy. I’m supposed to think that if their mothers had prayed to God, asking, ‘Please help my child,’ then they wouldn’t be here? Nonsense.” Wilder shakes his head.
“You asked me at the beginning, ‘Why do I feel Jewish?” he says, “and I said, ‘because of my parents’ love and embracing, because they gave me confidence.’ If my mother hadn’t laughed at the funny things I did, I probably wouldn’t be a comic actor. After she had her first heart attack, the doctor said, ‘Try to make her laugh.’ And that was the first time I tried to make anyone laugh. [Wilder was just 6 at the time.] It seems to me you either have an optimistic outlook on life, or you have a Jewish pessimist’s outlook.” All of a sudden Wilder’s playing an Old Jew: “ ‘Oy—my luck, it would happen to me! Of course they’d be closed! Of course the car would break down!’ ” Back to himself: “I always hate it when I hear that. They don’t know what trouble is till they’ve seen real suffering.”
Old Jew again: ‘They’re out of cabbage; of course. No more orange juice in the whole shop. They haven’t got one chicken left.’ ”
I can’t help laughing and feeling relieved to see a flash of Wilder-the-performer again.
I ask him at what moment in his life has he felt the most Jewish? He pauses for a full thirty seconds before answering: “I think when I was with Zero Mostel and Mel Brooks,” he says finally. “Not while the camera was rolling, but while they were talking. I identified with something that was Jewish. They weren’t talking about Jewish subjects. But I said to myself, ‘Yes, I’m part of that; I’m part of what they’re doing, and how they sound, and how they’re thinking.’ That’s in me.” I don’t know where I got it from. My mother wasn’t at all like that. She didn’t have any Jewish expressions or typically Jewish intonations or even a Jewish outlook—she wouldn’t have talked about God. The closest I ever heard my father talk about God was when it had been raining and I had an umbrella and I came in out of the rain and opened the umbrella in the living room. And he said, ‘Jerry, close the umbrella; you’re opening an umbrella in the house.’ I said, ‘Daddy, are you superstitious?’ He said, ‘Not in the least, but why take a chance?’ Now, that’s Jewish.”
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and One and the Same. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.
Abigail Pogrebin is the author of Stars of David and My Jewish Year. She moderates the interview series “What Everyone’s Talking About” at the JCC in Manhattan.