Rest in peace, Gene Wilder, the blurry-featured, flossy-haired, heavy-eyed man who shrieked, ranted, muttered, and mugged through so many of Mel Brooks’ movies — with, if you pay attention, an incredible amount of classical stage discipline and skill. By all accounts, he lived for the attention he got through acting, but always shared the stage.
He’s told the story in several interviews of how he came to fall in love with acting: When he was a young boy, his mother had a heart attack. She came back home fragile and was put to bed, and the doctor pulled the little boy aside and said that he should never get angry at her, because it could kill her. But he should always try to make her laugh. And so he did.
It almost sounds too tidily melodramatic to be true, but it would explain why Wilder was willing to pour so much of himself into his films. In his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, he tells the story of how he persuaded Mel Brooks not to scrap the “Puttin’ On the Ritz” scene in Young Frankenstein:
Wilder was irreplaceable in Mel Brooks’ broad, outlandish comedies-with-a-heart, where he fleshed out what could have been one-dimensional comic book characters into real, if bizarre people, usually in the midst of some kind of painful transformation: Viktor Frankenstein, the brilliant, rational surgeon and professor being stalked by destiny; in Blazing Saddles, the dissipated Waco Kid haunted by his past and eager to die, perfectly placed for one last deed of greatness; and of course Leo Bloom, the neurotically timid accountant who accidentally stumbles on an almost-brilliant idea. None of these characters would have worked if Wilder hadn’t believed them with his whole heart.
Here are my favorite Gene Wilder scenes, many of which are the source of Fisher household catchphrases:
From Blazing Saddles, when the new sheriff meets the town drunk: “Need any help?” — “Oh . . . all I can get.” (This phrase turns up a lot during the dinner prep hour):
In Young Frankenstein, while the good doctor still strains to divorce his name from his nefarious ancestors, he protests that he is not interested in death! Look at those hooded eyes, how he slides them around him and bats his lids like a silent movie actor:
Wilder has a wonderful maniacal shout, but his quiet mutter is sublime. “Nice hopping,” and “Give him an extra dollar” are both standards in our household.
And of course the fabled “Puttin’ On the Ritz” song and dance, where Dr. Frankenstein seeks to win over the hearts and minds of a suspicious community by showing them the fearful monster’s lovable show biz side:
Great example of how he refuses to steal the stage, in service of the show.
From The Producers (the real version, not the other one):
“I’m in pain. I’m wet. And I’m still hysterical!”
Ah, well. Prayers for comfort for his widow, a non-celebrity who was married to Wilder for 25 years and who nursed him through his final illness; and prayers for Wilder. May his soul rest in peace.