Lead image via Silver Screen Collection
Gene Wilder, the acting legend most famous for his 1971 role as the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, has died due to complications from Alzheimer's disease at 83, his family confirmed on Monday. Wilder wasn't a prolific actor, appearing in only about "15 or 18 films" by his own reckoning—and dropping out of the movie business almost entirely for the past two decades.
But when he was at the height of his powers from the late 60s through the early 80s, he collaborated with equally brilliant directors and co-stars to create one weirdo masterpiece after another. The performance at the center of one of Wilder's films feels like lightning in a bottle that could never possibly be captured again. You could lift, say, Cary Grant out of a role and simply replace him with his modern equivalent, George Clooney, but I doubt anyone could possibly be a "modern Gene Wilder."
Wilder's acting range may seem limited: He could be a nervous college professor-type, or crank up the volume all the way to mad scientist, and that's pretty much it. But instead of working within the honorable tradition of the one-note character actor, Wilder painted with varying shades of optimism and warmth—always hidden under a veneer of derangement—and the combination somehow made him into an unlikely movie star.
His big break in movies was just four years before he played Willy Wonka, when he was plucked from a stint on Broadway to play a kidnapped mortician in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. Director Arthur Penn told him at the time his performance in the tiny role was surprising. "I asked him what he meant, and he said he never imagined its being funny," Wilder wrote in his 2006 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger.
Wilder was sort of an overnight success at 34 years old, managing to get a role the following year in the first of Mel Brooks's many comedy films, The Producers. Wilder's work with Brooks included two other undisputed classics: Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which further solidified his reputation as a comedian, a label Wilder himself found puzzling. He told interviewer Robert Osborne in 2013, "I don't think I'm that funny," and said, "I'll make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but [I'm] nothing special."
Despite not finding himself funny, Wilder continued to appear in comedies with varying degrees of success. He and Richard Pryor teamed up for a successful run of three films in the 70s and 80s. He also appeared in a light comedy in 1982 called Hanky Panky, which wasn't very popular, but did introduce him to his third wife, the late comedy god and original SNL cast member, Gilda Radner.
Outside of the comedy world, Wilder seemed most at home in family movies—specifically, those that were strange and unsettling. He somehow combined warmth with mania and darkness to bring us characters like Willy Wonka. Early on in Chocolate Factory, Wilder's Wonka seems like some kind of emotionally distant sadist with maybe a hint of a soul. Later, when he reveals that torturing children was a ploy, and that his real agenda was to hand over the keys to his candy empire to Charlie, the audience feels a sudden swell of elation that wouldn't be nearly as sweet if Wilder hadn't taken the character to such terrifying depths.
Maybe that's why no one has ever attempted to play the role of Willy Wonka ever again, and you can't convince me otherwise.
Wilder was the most emotionally satisfying part of a very you-have-to-be-stoned-to-get-it 1974 musical adaptation of The Little Prince. He played the character of the Fox as just a guy in a brown suit, if that helps give you a sense of what kind of movie this was. But Wilder's heartbreaking departure from the Prince's life makes the film worth watching.
As time went on, Wilder became disillusioned by movies in general. He complained to Osborne that there was too much "swearing" and "bombing" in Hollywood. "If something comes along that's really good, and I think I'd be good for it, I'd be happy to do it," he said. "But not too many came along."
Wilder's movie career slowed to a stop in the 1990s, but he popped up in a handful of made-for-TV movies before seemingly calling it quits. In 1999, when NBC decided to make a two-and-a-half hour Alice in Wonderland adaptation for some weird reason, Wilder was kind enough to accept the role of the Mock Turtle. In one scene, Wilder stands there in a turtle shell with his pal the Gryphon green-screened in behind him and sings a drawn-out version of the Lewis Carroll poem "Beautiful Soup."
It's absolutely bananas. In the hands of any other actor who has ever lived, the scene would be pure so-bad-it's-good endurance comedy. Wilder's performance, on the other hand, is funny, but it also manages to make you feel something. As always, Wilder must have looked on the page at an insane character with an equally insane preoccupation and somehow resisted the temptation to wink, or break the fourth wall, or phone it in.
Instead, Wilder managed to love the character and song, and—even trickier—he made us love them too. At this moment, I don't see how any actor could ever pull off a trick like that again.
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