When we lose a cultural icon, we go looking for them immediately. In August of 2016 – when news broke of Gene Wilder’s death – most of the world, it seems, ran to revisit Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and maybe even Rhinoceros. In my own case, I went looking for Wilder inside a hall closet containing a tower of old magazines. Somewhere in that cluttered mosaic of stacked periodicals and moth-nibbled scarves was his voice. Inside my head, I could already hear it.
In April of 2005, it was apparently perfectly normal to put Josh Homme of Queens of the Stone Age on the cover of a magazine and include an interview with Gene Wilder on the inside, buried somewhere around page 84, tucked in right before a chat with the band Spoon. Did it sell? Who knows – we weren’t counting clicks back then. But as the editor-in-chief of the now sadly defunct music magazine Filter, I, along with a Spartan crew of talented and tireless writers, photographers and art directors, would stay up late and think of ridiculous ideas and no one stopped us from following them through. We would laugh out loud at what we’d done while copyediting the Table of Contents – a list of illogical choices that somehow congealed into a perfect thing. Or, so it seemed at the time.
In dealing with death, we also tend to become rosily nostalgic. I was about to write that the magazine we were making was like Gene Wilder in some way, or, made in the same spirit as he made his films. The fact is, on 28 August – the day before Wilder’s death – I wasn’t thinking about the actor or my old magazine at all. I hadn’t watched any of Wilder’s films or thought about him much in years, even. But that fact never lessens the blow of an unexpected death and the feeling is a kind of regret. One moment you are living in the same world with Gene Wilder and now you are not. Before you know it, the memory of him shines and blossoms like the colours in Willy Wonka, you celebrate the work, and you rummage through your closet.
My memory of him, or doing this interview, isn’t much. This was a telephone conversation – he was in Connecticut and I was in California. But reading back over this interview, I clearly recall how it ended. At some point, we had been going back through each of his films, and he suddenly just stopped. Wilder said politely that he had a car waiting and he was headed to the airport. In my eager stupidity, I said, ‘Oh, well, I only have a few more here.’ (We hadn’t even gotten to Silver Streak.) It’s how he said goodbye that has stuck with me all this time. ‘Well, that’s just fine. You can stay, but I’ve got to get going.’ And he gently hung up the phone.
LaGambina: Being famous for being funny. I’d imagine that’s a unique kind of burden…
Wilder: The only burden is that people think I’m going to be funny when then say, ‘Hello.’ And that is a burden. I say, ‘Thanks for the compliments. Thank you for saying, ‘Hello.’ But I’m not that funny in real life.’ Sometimes I’m funny, but it’s not trying to be, it just comes out. I’m funny at home, with my wife, but it’s not planned. If in a restaurant someone comes up and starts talking about, ‘You’re the funniest guy ever.’ I say, ‘I’m not, really. I’m quite private, but I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the movies.’
What made you lean towards comedy more than anything else? Was it one of those things that just happened along the way?
No, it wasn’t an accident. When I was eight years old, my mother had a severe heart attack and when she came home from the hospital, the doctor took me aside and dropped his sweaty face against my cheek and he said, ‘Don’t ever get angry with your mother because you might kill her.’ That scared the shit out of me. And the second thing he said was, ‘Try to make her laugh.’ It was an unusual thing for him to say, I thought, at the time. But, from that point on, I consciously tried to make another person laugh, and I succeeded. ’Cause, you know, when you succeed with your mother, it gives you confidence. And that’s how… I think that’s how it all began.
Then, I saw Death of a Salesman in New York when I was 16. I went to the Morosco Theatre with my sister and saw Lee J Cobb and Mildred Dunnock in Death of a Salesman. I was so overwhelmed by it. I thought I might want to be funny, but I didn’t want to be a comedian, I wanted to be an actor. A real actor. Perhaps a real comic actor, but an actor, not a comedian. It solidified that evening. I don’t want to go into anything now about the difference, but people can understand it, I think – being a comedian, standing up and trying to be funny. I just wanted to be a real actor and if it came out funny, that’s fine, if it was a comedy. But I wanted to act – I do act the same way if I’m doing a comedy or a drama. It’s just in a comedy, I’d make comic choices, but I try to make it as real. Actually, the more real you are in a comedy, the funnier the comedy is. So, that’s what I devoted my career to.
Did it ever get to the point where you couldn’t make the choices you wanted to make, because you weren’t allowed to do anything outside of what you’d become known for?
No, that never happened. I might not have gotten a part that I wanted, which didn’t happen very often, but those were when I wanted to play in dramatic parts and someone would say, ‘I don’t want any comedians in this.’ I’m thinking in particular of one film, from Joe Levine – he’s dead now, but he was the head of Embassy Pictures. They were going to make a film and the director wanted me, the author wanted me, the production designer wanted me. He had distributed The Producers, where I was nominated for an Academy Award. He said, ‘You’re a great actor Gene Wilder,’ but when it came time for this film, he said, ‘No, I don’t want any comedians!’ So that’s the only time I remember that happening. In a comedy, they wanted me to fly and I did fly, especially when I was with Mel Brooks. He just wanted me to take off. Also, with Richard Pryor. Quite the opposite of restricting me, they were hoping always that I would shock them with something new. I’m thinking of Sidney Poitier [director of Stir Crazy]. And Arthur Hiller [director of Silver Streak]. And more times than not, I did. I wouldn’t say shock, but I happily surprised them.
Were you surprised at how much chemistry you and Richard Pryor had?
Where do you think it came from? Was it from the first day, or did it develop as you got to know each other?
When I met him in Calgary, in Canada, for Silver Streak, he said, ‘Hello, hello,’ quietly. We said how much we admired each other. And the next day, we did our first scene – a little scene, outside, a helicopter, guns, police cars and a train – and he said something and I said my line and then he said something that was not in the script at all and I answered it with something not in the script, in a natural way. We did that for a few lines and then came back, ended up on the script lines, and that was how we started our improvisational relationship. And at the end of the scene, when we had made a shambles out of everyone – all the prison guards and everything else – we both, at the same moment, started humming the Laurel and Hardy theme song. [Humming the famous melody] dum, da dum da dum de dum… And when he hollered ‘Cut!’ and everyone was laughing, I said, ‘Did you know you were going to do that?’ And Richard said, ‘No. Did you?’ And I said, ‘No.’ But we both did it, I suppose, because it appealed to the same silliness. That’s the way it always was when we worked. We never talked about anything to do with improvising, it just happened. I didn’t do that with other people. In a sense it was like a sexual attraction. That is, the chemistry. You say, ‘Why that woman and not this woman? That woman is much prettier, a better figure, a better body, softer skin, whatever. But I’m attracted to that woman.’ You say, ‘It’s a mystery.’ Why? Chemistry. It’s just the chemistry. In that sense, that’s what Richard Pryor and I had. I also had that with Madeline Kahn, whom I adored.
I never seem to associate you with Los Angeles or New York, really. And you essentially came out of the Midwest…
From there, which way did you initially lean – New York and the stage, or Los Angeles and the movies?
Only New York. When I was asked by Gene Saks, who was directing me in something, he said, ‘Why don’t you go to California and get into films? You’re talented.’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ But I would go there and some producer would say, ‘I hear you’re a funny guy.’ And then they’d expect me to be funny and I wouldn’t be. Give me the part and I would be, but not just to walk into an office and try and sell myself. I wouldn’t be any good at it. I said, ‘The only way I’ll get into the movies is if someone sees me in a play.’ Arthur Penn and Warren Beatty saw me in a play – I don’t even remember which one – and asked me to do Bonnie and Clyde.
People don’t believe me when I tell them you’re in that movie.
I’m there. It’s a very good, small part. That was my first one.
Was that a good experience for a first film?
Oh, I loved it. The most memorable experience was when I was filming interiors, in Hollywood at Warner Brothers, and Arthur Penn said, ‘Action,’ and I started right in. He said, ‘Wait, wait, Gene. Just because I say “action” doesn’t mean you have to start acting. It just means: we’re all ready. I see something’s cooking in you and it’s not quite ready to come out. Film is cheap, take your time and when you’re ready, you start acting.’ I did, and it came out very well and all that. Then, when that scene was over, the first assistant director came up to me and said, ‘Don’t get used to that. You won’t find many people who work the way Arthur Penn does.’
You’ve been doing some stage work on the East Coast in recent years. Is there still any eagerness to make films?
I’d rather be in a film, but the kinds of films that I want to do aren’t being written anymore.
I think that too, but I’m not sure if I’m just being nostalgic…
No, you’re not. I’m nostalgic too! And terribly disappointed. Once in a while a director or some writer or producer will send me a script and I’ll say, ‘The script is good, but I’m not right for this part.’ Or, ‘I can see why you want me for this part, but the script is junk.’ The kinds of movies that I made with Mel Brooks, people don’t make those movies anymore.
I don’t know if anyone would produce The Producers today. I don’t think they would do Young Frankenstein. They might do Blazing Saddles. They might. But I wouldn’t bet on it. They want what’s often referred to as ‘edgy’. They’re thinking about how much money it will make. No one has shot a foot of film, or even finished the casting, but it’s based on, ‘How much do you think this will do?’ That’s just death. It’s got nothing to do with art. I’m not saying that you have to be unaware of the commercial potentiality of something. I want a film to be popular. If I do a comedy I certainly want it to be popular. If it’s really funny, it should be popular. But there’s no guarantee of that sort of thing.
They’re doing another film version of The Producers…
They start next week. But that’s a musical. That’s not The Producers as you know it from the film. It’s the same story, of course, and characters, but different – some of the characters are even different. It’s a wonderful musical. Mel wrote great songs for it. Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick are wonderful in it and it’ll be very good. I’m sure it will be. But that’s not remaking The Producers, that’s making it into a musical.
What are your feelings about the upcoming version of Willy Wonka? I’m not even sure what I think about it, I associate you with the role so strongly…
Well, I’m glad that you do. I don’t think there’s going to be any relation to the one that I did. First of all, they’re not calling it Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was the original title of the book. And Tim Burton did Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice and Batman. He’s not going to do anything close to what we did. I’m sure it’s going to be very scary and my bet, my guess is, it will be geared towards teenagers rather than for pre- teens. I think he wants to scare the shit out of everyone. And he probably will. All kinds of special effects, visual effects, scary things – I’m guessing that. I haven’t seen it, so I don’t know.
Do you have any interest in seeing it?
No. If they had made a remake of The Wizard of
Oz first, I might have been interested. But for some reason they passed that by and went right on to Willy Wonka.
As far as performers go, it’s near impossible to think of anyone doing comedic acting nowadays who is doing it quite the way you were able to in some of your films. People sometimes mention Will Ferrell…
Really? What has he been in?
I guess he’s most famous for Old School, or maybe Anchorman. He was also on Saturday Night Live for a number of years…
Oh, I don’t think I know his work…
I’m not sure what you’d think of him. I’m not sure if comedic actors are even the same thing anymore…
I don’t know if people doing comedy today want to devote themselves to doing a real person – a live, human being who also happens to be funny, but is acting in a way that is realistic. It could be in a farce, it could be in a wild comedy it could be in a gentle comedy, it could be whatever – I’m just saying, good acting is good acting. But if you’re going directly for the joke bull’s eye, then you distort your own talent. I don’t know who works that way now.
You recently finished writing your memoirs. Did you learn anything about yourself?
I’m more sure now of all I thought was true. I’ve found – after a long time – real love. That is, love that will last as long as I’m alive, with a mate that I wouldn’t have been ready for 20 years ago and now we’ve been married for 13-and-a-half years.
I think that’s what everyone wants, or hopes for.
I think so. But it’s been a long process to get there.