“Oh you’re a die-hard Gene Wilder fan? Please tell me how much you liked all his non-Wonka movies” will likely become a meme if it hasn’t already. For the past few years, a still of Willy Wonka smiling has become that smartass meme clogging your Facebook feed. You’d be forgiven for saying “Oh yeah, that’s right. Gene Wilder was in all those other movies!”
As Eugene Grizzard — one half of the chatty couple thrilled to be taken hostage in the violent-for-its-time film, Bonnie And Clyde — Wilder was introduced to many audiences. Mel Brooks took advantage of the actor’s comedic potential when he portrayed shady Leo Bloom in the vulgar-for-its-time film The Producers. Brooks took advantage again of Wilder’s talent in the even-more-vulgar-for-its-time Blazing Saddles. He had a memorable role as a sheep-sodomizer in Woody Allen’s take on Dr. David Reuben’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). His fame allowed him to write, direct, and star in a film of his own, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Later he would become known as part of a comic duo with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil,Hear No Evil, and Another You.
While his title role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory would prove the most enduring, it would be a romantic pairing in the ’80s that seemed to give his career a melancholic mist.
There was a sliver of time, 1982 to 1986 to be specific, when a new Gene Wilder flick meant Gilda Radner would be the co-star. Radner had already been a successful comedian in her own right as a Saturday Night Live cast member during the show’s early years. Her portrayals of characters such as the obnoxious Roseanne Roseannadanna, the clueless Emily Litella, and the hyperactive little girl Judy Miller endeared her to audiences. Apparently, it endeared Wilder as well. Having met while shooting Sidney Poitier’s romantic comedy, Hanky Panky, the lovestruck thing hit hard. There was something comically sweet about two funny people making goofy, somewhat fleeting comedies together.
Radner expressed the initial love buzz in her 1989 memoir, It’s Always Something: “I had been a fan of Gene Wilder’s for many years, but the first time I saw him in person, my heart fluttered — I was hooked. It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor. Gene was funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good. I was bitten with love, and you can tell it in the movie. The brash and feisty comedian everyone knew from Saturday Night Live turned into this shy, demure ingenue with knocking knees. It wasn’t good for my movie career, but it changed my life.”
While her public recollection of their meeting was more romantic, Wilder’s recollection in his book Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art was a bit bawdier, writing, “Remembering our first meeting was something like a he said/she said situation. Gilda said that I rubbed my crotch against her knee when I asked her if I could bring her some tea or coffee. When she told me this story, I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ And she said, ‘No, they were your nuts.’ ”
Inevitably, the blossoming relationship became a sweet meta-cherry to the promotion of their following productions in 1984’s The Woman In Red and 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon. Of the three films they made together, The Woman In Red was the most successful thanks to Stevie Wonder’s song “I Just Called To Say I Love You.”
Over the past 25 plus years, Wilder’s TV and film work dwindled considerably. After Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder helped established a cancer research program at Cedars-Sinai hospital as well as founding Gilda’s Club — a cancer support community that has since grown worldwide. In time, Wilder married Karen Webb, whom he had previously met while working on See No Evil, Hear No Evil. From what would be rightfully viewed as an overly analytical armchair psychiatrist point of view, his passion faded for working in the visual medium and he focused energies on other philanthropic endeavours would fit the perfect tragic narrative of two funny people in love. Wilder was aware of the perfect drama that could be cultivated from it all. In 2005 when CNN’s Aaron Brown asked if the tragedy angle fits an angle some of the public would prefer, Wilder stated, “… if you found happiness, real happiness, then it would be stupid to waste your life mourning. And if you asked Gilda, she’d say, don’t be a jerk. You know, go out, have fun. Wake up and smell the coffee, you know. I wouldn’t waste my life mourning. Would I want to erase the memories I have, the good memories? No, of course, not. But I wouldn’t want to mourn for the rest of my life.”
To add a more wistful-than-usual note: According to Billboard magazine, Wilder singing “Pure Imagination” from the Willy Wonka soundtrack earned 239,000 domestic on-demand streams (audio and video) in the week following his passing.