This afternoon, I had signed out of my e-mail account, and was randomly flipping through the top stories on MSN, as I am wont to do.
And then, I saw the headline:
“Gene Wilder Dead at 83.”
And I just about died myself, right then and there.
To quote Josh Gad, “This one hits hard.”
What I know about Gene Wilder is a bit of a blur. Accomplished actor, comedic actor, director, and writer. Milwaukee-born, University of Iowa graduate (yes, KCRG back in Cedar Rapids has posted several stories and photos on their website regarding Wilder). Did not have an easy early life, but was able to overcome it all to soar to phenomenal heights. Married at one time to my favorite comedienne, Gilda Radner, until her death of ovarian cancer, after which he became actively involved in promoting awareness of the disease. Beat cancer himself several years ago. Has essentially been retired from showbiz in general for many, many years, but has left an unforgettable legacy, an indelible mark in the history of entertainment, and, if you ask me, in humanity.
But I have to be perfectly honest with you – I have not seen many of Gene Wilder’s films. Films like “The Producers,” “Silver Streak,” “The Woman in Red,” or “The Frisco Kid,” just to name a few. And I have only ever seen bits and pieces of both “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” – I have never ever seen those two comedy classics in their entirety. I never saw any of his TV work, of course never saw his theatre work, and I have not yet read any of his published written works, which I have heard are great reads.
But, at least to me, I don’t mind any of that.
Because the performance of Gene Wilder’s that matters the most to me, that has always mattered the most to me, is that of Willy Wonka.
I have loved that movie ever since I was really little. Everything about that movie was, as the song goes, “pure imagination.” The characters, the colors, the lessons, the music, the chocolate (grin). Of the five Golden Ticket winning children, my favorite was – and, yes, Youngest Brother, this is the honest truth – Veruca Salt; mind you, I was never spoiled like she was, but I always wished I’d had at least a glimmer of her attitude, plus she had the second best song in the whole movie.
But it was Gene Wilder as the titular Willy Wonka that I loved the most. It was always Gene Wilder. And that love has never diminished, has only grown deeper as I’ve gotten older.
That’s really all I’ve been able to think about, since learning of his passing, is Willy Wonka.
Because, in my humble opinion, all the brilliance that is Gene Wilder – everything that I have ever read about him or seen of him or heard about him – is perfectly presented in that role.
Even the initial casting of Gene Wilder in the role has a legendary backstory, as indicated in this amalgamated story/quote, cobbled from several sources:
Wilder auditioned to play Willy Wonka….After reciting some lines, Wilder prepared to leave the auditioning station, but [director] Mel Stuart….ran after him and offered the role to him immediately. Wilder was initially hesitant when he learned more on the role, but finally accepted the role under one condition:
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
When asked why he wanted to do this, Wilder replied, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
[Stuart] asked, “If I say no, you won’t do the picture?”, and Wilder said, “I’m afraid that’s the truth.”
Pardon my French, but how fucking amazing, fantastic, brilliant is that?!? What an amazing, fantastic, brilliant mind, to think of something like that!
And, of course, that is exactly how it happened:
And I, along with millions past, present, and future, couldn’t be more thankful that he got his wish with that, and landed the role.
Even now, as Willy Wonka, his performance both terrifies and enchants me. The terror comes from his madness during the infamous boat-in-the-tunnel scene (and I’m not the only one), and from his rage at Charlie and Grandpa Joe towards the end. The mystery and eventual playfulness of the character, all the literary quotes he spouts, his outright sarcasm (which makes me giggle), the foreign languages peppered in, the lessons he ends up imparting, and of course the ever-present twinkle in those blue blue eyes, are what enchants me.
Then, of course, there is the best song in the whole movie: “Pure Imagination.”
And what more needs to be said about that?
But, no. What has really gotten to me since learning of his death (sadly from complications of Alzheimer’s) is the memory of the very final scene in the movie. I had actually forgotten about this very quote until I saw it posted by someone else in memoriam of Wilder.
After Wonka has raged at both Charlie and Grandpa Joe, after Grandpa Joe has sworn revenge, after this particularly heart-wrenching moment (at least, it was always sort of sad to me)….:
….Willy Wonka declares Charlie to be the winner. Then he takes Charlie and Grandpa Joe on an unforgettable trip “up and out” in the “Great Glass Wonkavator.”
And that’s why I’ve been crying ever since.
Because even as a child, and even now as an adult, I can feel his arms around me, like I share in that hug as much as Charlie does….
“But, Charlie? Don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted.”
“He lived happily ever after.”
That was Gene Wilder.
That was Gene Wilder.
Goodbye, Gene Wilder. May you rest in peace. You will be missed, and you will always be loved.