From an early age, Gene Wilder was one of my favorite actors. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was very possibly the first movie I saw, or at least remember seeing, in the theater (soon after it was released in 1971! boy I’m getting old…), unless it was nudged out slightly by The Phantom Tollbooth. But no matter, it was and remains one of my favorite movie memories from my childhood. Everything about it was magical to me, and I haven’t a doubt in my mind that a large part of that magic is due to the brilliant casting of Wilder as Wonka.
I loved him in his other classic movies as well: The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Stir Crazy, and Silver Streak. His others I didn’t consider on a par with any of these, but in any case, it didn’t require too many movies for him to make his mark. Really, he could have stopped with Willy Wonka and I wouldn’t have felt any different about him. As an actor type, he was a natural continuation from Danny Kaye and Dick Van Dyke, who both played similarly lovable, good-natured characters with wit and intelligence and a touch (or more) of slapstick — but Wilder’s ever-present hint of sadness, and his ability to tip quickly into, and then back out of, moments of mania, always just on the other side of his smile and the twinkle in his eye, made him truly unique.
I met him briefly once, outside of the New England Aquarium in Boston in 1981, when he was filming Hanky Panky with Gilda Radner (during which time they fell in love, as the story goes). This was in high school, and I was with my friend Joe, and I actually can’t recall now if we had made the drive into the city specifically to see if we could get a glimpse, or if we were there already for another reason. But as it was, while wandering around the location, we came upon him sitting on a low wall away from the set, with a woman that I supposed was part of the crew. We decided to try approaching him to ask for an autograph. But as we approached, we could see that the woman had been crying, and he had a supportive hand on her arm. Nonetheless, as politely as we could, feeling a bit like we were intruding on a private moment (which we were, of course), we asked him anyway, since this was probably our only chance to meet him. He looked up and said, “Sorry boys, but I’m afraid I can’t right now. Try to find me a little later….” We mumbled our thanks and apologies, told him we really enjoyed his movies, and walked away, feeling a bit embarrassed that maybe we had annoyed him. Looking back on it, I respect the fact that comforting someone in need of a shoulder to cry on was more important to him than disappointing a couple of fans — as it ought to be. If he was annoyed, he didn’t really show it, but he was clearly determined not to let us take priority over his friend’s needs at that moment. Needless to say, maybe, we didn’t see him again and never got that autograph. But I got to see a tiny glimpse of what he was like as a person, and that’s something you aren’t likely to get from a simple autograph signing.
You don’t really know how much you’re going to miss someone, even an actor that you never knew, until it’s too late. I realize now that he was one of my most cherished celebrities, someone I imagined a kind of kinship with, and I wish I could have knowingly appreciated the last few hours of a world that still had him living in it before he died.
Oh, and for the music, I felt nothing could be more suitable to accompany this than Wilder himself, as Willy Wonka, singing “Pure Imagination” from the movie soundtrack. Out of the context of the movie, maybe it would just be a sappy song, but in the movie, it perfectly complements the magic that was Wonka’s chocolate factory and his idea that there’s magic in everyone if they want it.