What makes a great actor great?

When I watch a performance, there are certain things I look for, and the biggest of those things is whether or not the actor is making choices about their work. There are plenty of actors who get through a scene just fine and who deliver their lines nicely and who never ever connect beyond that for me because it doesn’t feel like they’re bringing anything to the process aside from their physical presence. There are certain actors, though, who I am immediately drawn to because you can see how they’re taking the raw material of the script and they’re putting it through their personal filter so that the end result is something the writer couldn’t have imagined, that the director couldn’t have asked for, and that the actor never would have reached on his own. Gene Wilder was one of those actors, and he leaves behind a body of work that is filled with joy and invention, shot through with a singular comic vision.

For many people my age, Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka first.

It’s sort of amazing seeing how much love there is for the film now considering it was a total disaster when it was first released. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was bankrolled by the Quaker Oats folks to help launch a Willy Wonka line of chocolate bars, and Paramount Pictures released the film in 1971. They did okay with it, but not great, and at the end of the year, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score. Wilder got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, but come on… look at that performance now and the iconic weight of it. In a perfect system, that performance has to be considered one of the very best given by anyone that year, and should have been praised and awarded much more than that, as much as possible. The film was first shown on television in 1975, and in 1977, Paramount gave up their distribution rights, which is another mind-boggling decision. Wolper Pictures Ltd. was sold to Warner Bros, and Quaker Oats sold the studio their share of the rights as well, and over time, it was Warner that managed to take this film that was willingly dumped on them and turn it into the beloved classic that it is now.

At the heart of the film’s enduring appeal is Wilder’s work, and in this one performance, you can see everything that made him great. His entrance is an all-timer, and it was something that Wilder created. Willy Wonka is presented as a mysterious figure, so when he does finally enter the film, it’s shocking to see him using a cane, limping terribly, apparently frail. All of a sudden, he plants the cane by accident and takes an extra step, faltering, and then collapsing forward. Just as the crowd gasps, Wonka rolls and pops up, revealing that he is fine and the limp was just an act. It’s funny, but it’s more than that. It is a promise to the audience that Wonka is completely untrustworthy, and for the rest of the film, Wilder lives up to that promise.

His Wonka is not some safe and cuddly kiddie character. He’s sinister just as much as he’s charming. He’s got a quiet seething contempt for bad behavior that runs through the film as subtext, and Wilder savors every bit of it. His dark sarcasm is often devastating in the film. When they were shooting the movie, he grew quite close to Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie. He did not tell Ostrum that he was planning to yell during the final scene in the office when he tells Charlie that he is disqualified for stealing, and so when he finally let loose during the actual filming of the scene, that shock you see on Ostrum’s face is real. He couldn’t believe what was happening because he was so used to the sweet and gentle Gene Wilder.

When I read the official statement released by his family today, I thought it was crushingly sad, but also perfectly in keeping with who I’ve always believed Wilder to be. He kept the details of his sickness very quiet, and not simply because he was a private person. Here’s their statement:

“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.

The cause was complications from Alzheimers Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones - this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.

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 worrry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Wow. Wilder was, of course, far more than “just” Willy Wonka. I have a personal mania for his work with Mel Brooks. Their three films together are as good as film comedy gets, and when you look at his work in the films, you can see just how broad his range was. Leo Bloom, The Waco Kid, and Froderick Franhnkensteeeeen are all wired wrong, but in totally different ways, and I love how inventive his work with Brooks was. When I interviewed Brooks a few years ago, I asked him about Wilder and his innate comic gifts, and he had this to say:

I told him that I have a particular fondness for the way he and Gene Wilder worked together. I think Gene is one of those guys who is so special and so unique, and to find  a comic presence like that and to be able to really explore the full range of his comic talent is one of the things that makes the run from "The Producers" to "Blazing Saddles" so special. I asked him how the creative partnership began and what his memories of it are.

Even on the phone, you could hear him smile as he answered. "I met him when he was doing a play on Broadway with my wife, Anne Bancroft. She played the leading role in a Bertolt Brecht play called 'Mother Courage and Her Children,' and he played the chaplain, one among a lot of people in the show. Jerome Robbins did a great job. It was a really beautifully directed play, and Anne was never better. So, you know, we got to be friends, and he’d comeoff-stage and he’d say, 'Why are they laughing at me? I didn’t intend that thing to be funny. Some scenes are serious and some scenes are funny. But I didn’t intend for that to be funny, so why are they laughing?' And I said, 'Blame God. Look in the mirror. When you speak earnestly, you have a funny expression on your face. It just tells me to laugh, so you’ve got to be careful, you know.'"

One of the things I love most about Wilder is that the most serious he is, the more brutally funny he becomes. "Right, right, right," Brooks agreed. "The straighter he plays it, the funnier he is."

It makes me sad that they only worked together three times, and I’d originally heard it told that they had a falling out over The Adventures Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Like much of the Hollywood gossip I hear, that turned out to be completely wrong. In truth, Mel Brooks was asked by Wilder to direct the film, but Brooks demurred because he said he didn’t have the same affinity for Holmes that Wilder did. Brooks offered any support that Wilder needed and told him that he should direct it himself because it was something he was passionate about.

It’s important to remember that they were co-writers as well, because that’s a very different relationship than just being a director and an actor. Wilder got nominated for an Oscar for his onscreen work in The Producers for Brooks, but the two of them were co-nominated for an Oscar as writers for Young Frankenstein, and there’s a case where I’m astonished how right the Oscars got it. That is a beautiful piece of writing, dense and layered and full of love for the thing it’s mocking. They didn’t stop working together for any particular reason. They just went in different creative directions. There was no falling out, and when I spoke to Brooks, it was clear that he had boundless affection for Wilder as a human being and as a performer.

That was true of every single person I’ve ever spoken to about working with Wilder. You don’t often hear universal love for someone, but in his case, it appears to be intense and genuine. When I was in theater school, I met someone who had worked on the original Broadway production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963, and they spoke in hushed and reverent tones about that entire event. It was legendary, and I’ve heard high praise for Kirk Douglas as McMurphy and William Daniels as Harding. For me, though, the idea of Gene Wilder as Billy Bibbit was just mind-blowing. I love Brad Dourif’s performance in the movie version, but Wilder seems like a genius choice for the role. I look at him in The Producers or Bonnie & Clyde and I can totally imagine what kind of authentic pain he could deliver in the right role. Every story I was told about Wilder when he was working on the production made him sound like the kind of actor that directors pray for and that other actors enjoy.

He was selective about his work, and he made less than 25 theatrical films. Not all of them are great, but I understand why he made every single one of them. He obviously chose experiences based on who he would be working with, and he loved people like Gilda Radner and Richard Pryor, people he shared a comic sensibility with, and was willing to jump in and try things with them just for the fun of trying things. He made sporadic TV appearances over the years, and it was always delightful to see him show up simply because of the joy that he seemed to radiate. There was something behind those eyes of his, some secret that he knew that made him smile that slightly naughty smile of his, and I think we all stayed riveted over the years hoping he would finally share it with us. There are plenty of other films he made also worth discussion beyond the ones I've already mentioned. For example, there's the greatest pause in the history of movies:

There are films he directed, like The World's Greatest Lover and Haunted Honeymoon, as well as films he starred in like The Woman In Red and The Frisco Kid, and every one of them has something about it worth discussing, and in particular, something about Wilder's work worth discussing. Choice after choice, scene after scene, he was always worth watching.

The family’s statement about him continued, describing the way he’s spent his life away from the public eye.

“He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring-bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted at the company of beloved ones.

He is survived by Karen, Jordan, and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer) along Jordan’s wife Elizabeth. Gene’s sister Corrine, predeceased him in January of this year.

He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each or cherished possessions. She was singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ as he was taken away.

‘We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.’

‘Gene’s Kid’
Jordan Walker-Pearlman”

It is my sincere hope that Gene Wilder knew just how loved he was, and I suspect he did. We don’t always celebrate someone’s place in pop culture in the right way while they are alive, but Wilder got to see just how deeply his work had gotten through to several generations of audiences, and his own protectiveness towards the children who love him as Willy Wonka suggests that he understood how deep that affection goes.

He will be missed ferociously.

A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.