Like most of my generation, Gene Wilder lied to me the first time I met him. Scrub forward to 9:30 for the quote.
"I thought the script was very good, but something was missing. I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, ‘what do you want to do that for?’ I said from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth."
What I think made Gene Wilder work, aside from his unmistakable and perfect comic timing (see the way he says "You know- morons" in Blazing Saddles, a delivery so perfect Cleavon Little honestly breaks up), was the sadness in him. Always, just under the surface, there was a sad, soulful loneliness in his eyes. He always sounded like he was on the verge of a sigh, except for when he was arcing into a hysteria no one else could pull off. Yes, everyone loves to point out his "LIVE, DAMN YOU!" in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN but just as perfect is his blue blanket tantrum in THE PRODUCERS. It's a minor compulsion, he could deal with it if he wanted to.
Marilyn Manson opens his first album with the "There's no earthly way of knowing" poem from Wonka and it's a toss up who does it creepier.
When he was sick he kept it a secret. His family's statement reads, "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."
That quote, by the way, that's when I cried. I was sad, but not crushed. He was old and suffering from Alzheimer's. He lived an incredible and long life, full of love. My connections to him were through movies I love. That's enough to feel an, "Awww, man. That sucks." But reading that he couldn't bear the idea of one less smile on a child's face? That did it.
There's so much we can learn from him and his movies. God, I wish I could show BLAZING SADDLES to a class full of students. Not 5th graders, I'm not insane, but high school kids? And then we could talk about how it's 40 years old and exactly as relevant today, in Barack Obama's America, as it was then, if not more so. And you can't say that's just Mel (oh god the chat we're going to have to have when Mel Brooks dies...I don't want to think about it), because Gene was involved in his movies very deeply. He co-wrote YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.