I remember precisely when I first saw Gene Wilder. I can’t say that about very many performers. But Wilder was unforgettable. To make it even more impressive, he appeared in a movie that would have easily been unforgettable without him: Bonnie and Clyde. You want more? I bet he wasn’t on screen for more than five minutes.
Wilder, who died Monday at 83 of complications from Alzheimer’s, played a very minor character named Eugene Grizzard. Along with his girlfriend, Velma, he gets taken on a joy ride by Bonnie and Clyde, a ride that ends abruptly when the outlaws discover his occupation: undertaker.
It’s a darkly funny scene but what makes it work is that weirdly lighter-than-air quality that Wilder brought to everything he did on screen. You always had the feeling that he could float away at any time, like a goofy angel. But at the same time, he seemed so real: Yes, a clueless undertaker from the sticks with his “what could possibly go wrong” attitude would probably behave just the way Wilder did when arm-twisted into the bonhomie of cruising with murderous outlaws.
Apparently a lot of people in Hollywood agreed, because after that he didn’t play too many supporting roles. And the next time I saw him, in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, he was even more impressive, not just because he was one of the stars, but because he was co-starring with Zero Mostel, an actor who dominated not just the room he was in at any give moment but every room for blocks around. But Wilder held his own through some mixture of that soufflé-like personality and a kind of zen charm that allowed chaos to swirl about him without ever engulfing him.
Perhaps that was what drew Brooks to Wilder—that unquenchable, nutty innocence that was, contradictorily, always a kind of knowing innocence, but with no trace of cynicism. Wilder appeared in all the movies that account for Brooks’s hottest streak (The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein), and while Wilder isn’t the funniest thing in those movies, he’s not supposed to be. But he’s not exactly just the straight man either. Instead, he’s always our link into the manic worlds that Brooks creates—the still point around which the craziness spins. You got the feeling, while watching him, that you would probably react the way he was reacting. If he panicked, yes, that was the time to panic. If he was calm, then calmness was what was called for. Even in Brooks’s universe, Wilder seemed more or less sane, and always very human.
Was there any darkness in him? Willy Wonka is pretty dark, though it deliberately masks the darkness with a blithe cheeriness that hides the knifelike spirit lurking just below the sugary surface. And what better repository for that cheeriness than Wilder? Here, as always, he conveys the idea that all is well, even when it isn’t. And yes, he’s more knowing here than in most of his roles, but he never seems evil or malignant, not even for a moment. If you wanted someone to pass judgment on your greedy, gluttonous soul, wouldn’t you choose Gene Wilder as your exterminating angel?
All of this comes under the heading of acting, of course. Wilder did genuinely inhabit whatever role he took on. Eugene the undertaker is not Willy Wonka, who is not Victor Frankenstein. And yet, there was a spirit in all those characters that unites them. And that fizzy, zany spirit, we must conclude, was Wilder’s own. The angelic goof who could make you smile even when there was nothing obvious to smile about—that was purely Gene Wilder, a man who lit up a movie screen in a unique way that has no equal. In the face of his death, all that’s left to say is that we were lucky to have him as long as we did.