Coming online to Facebook today, I came across some sad news as Hollywood lost one of its true iconic comic actors. Gene Wilder, who established himself with his amusing neurotic performances in three classic films directed by Mel Brooks and his star transforming role in “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory”, passed away early Monday morning at his home in Stanford, Conn. He was 83 years old.
Like many people in my generation, I was introduced to Gene Wilder with his eccentric role as the famous chocolate maker in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” His brilliant performance as the wizardly chocolate maker made me believe in the magic of pure imagination, even when teaching those naughty kids a lesson. Looking back at the film now, I admired his brilliance, comedic quickness, and how the film remains the first one you name when you think about Mr. Wilder.
It wasn’t until later that I watched his Mel Brooks-directed films, most recently this summer where I watched “Blazing Saddles” for the very first time. Mr Wilder has the relatively quiet role of the Waco kid, a boozy ex-gunslinger who helps the improbably black sheriff (Cleavon Little) save a town from railroad barrons and venal politicians. The raunchy, no-holds-barred spoof of Hollywood westerns might have lost its edge over the films but his next one has never grown old.
“Young Frankenstein” showed Wilder as an American man of science and the grandson of the infamous Dr. Frankenstein. He tries to turn his back on his heritage but finds himself irresistibly drawn to Transylvania. Wilder envisioned a black-and-white film faithful to the 1931 monster classic directed by Boris Karloff. His winning chemistry with fellow comedian, Richard Pryor, in “Stir Crazy” made them a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood comedy.
From Willy Wonka to the Waco Kid to young Frankenstein, you have entertained us for years, Mr. Wilder. Thank you for the gift of pure imagination that you presented.
You will be missed. Rest in peace, Gene.