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Published on August 29th, 2016 | by Lauren Bycroft

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In Memory Of The Great Gene Wilder

There are few scenes better than Leo Bloom’s freak out over his blanket or the Waco Kid’s first meeting with Black Bart the Sheriff.  Both these scenes are the handiwork of the incredible and indelible Gene Wilder who we lost Sunday to complications due to Alzheimer’s.  Wilder had the whole package, the mania and hysterics, the unpredictability, and the pathos.  His characters were not just caricatures but deeply felt and flawed human beings who just happened to make us laugh until we couldn’t breathe.  Wilder wasn’t seen much in public over the last decade, his health having diminished, but it’s clear as we mourn him, that he was never far from our minds.

I read Gene Wilder’s autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, for the first time maybe ten years ago.  Since then I’ve probably read it at least twice more.  It’s not a terribly long book, just over 200 pages, an easy read you could finish off in a day or a weekend, but it stays with you long after you’ve turned the last page.  I love reading the memoirs of my favorite actors and actresses, especially comic actors. Comedians are usually honest and self-effacing.  They write in a way that you can relate to, sometimes deeply, between laughs.  I think you’d be hard pressed to find, however, a memoir as frank as Wilder’s.  An actor of the generation before pervasive paparazzi and gossip magazines, Gene Wilder was a mystery to me growing up.  He was the nervous Leo Bloom, the confident and devilish Waco Kid, the magical and maniacal Willy Wonka.  He was everyone and no one. Until I read his book that is.

It was as if he had unfurled himself right before my eyes.  The first pages detail his start with therapy, embarrassing first experience with a girl, and an upsetting sexual assault at school.  This man with the smiling blue eyes who I adored, laid bare his deepest pains and traumas.  That’s what’s at the core of Gene Wilder and what made his characters unforgettable.

 Talking about his experience filming The Producers opposite the imposing comedic giant Zero Mostel, Wilder recalled that he needed what he referred to as a sense memory to attach to Leo Bloom’s little blue security blanket so he could really go bananas when Bialystock took it away.

 He remembered when he got his dog Julie and took her to Central Park to play ball for the first time.  One throw went too far and Julie bounded after it into a pond that had been emptied for the winter.  He caught up to her limping across the cold cement. “I imagined it was Julie I was holding – not a blue blanket,” he wrote.  “And I was rubbing my cheek against her curly fur, feeling it and smelling it.

 And then Zero Mostel grabbed her out of my arms and was going to throw her away…and I went crazy.”

Gene Wilder not only bared his soul in his memoir, he did it in his characters.  We just didn’t know it.  His embarrassments, sadness, love, loss, aspirations – all he felt and was – he put into those men we grew up with.  That is why they resonate with us and will likely continue to do so for generations to come.  

Many will talk about him in the coming days, weeks, and years as a comedic genius, and that’s no doubt true.  But I think of him as so much more, as a master of humanity.  Most actors are lucky to have one iconic role, Wilder has at least 4 and you could certainly argue for more.  He put great thought and care into these comedic wonders, something that is especially evident in his withdraw from the public eye as he battled Alzheimer’s.

 His family said in a statement, “the decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Sweet, sensitive, and a treasure of a human being until the end, we have truly lost a legend with Gene Wilder’s passing.  Lucky for us we have so much of him left behind in his iconic works.

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