How I Remember Gene Wilder

I grew up during a time when everyone’s favorite movies would be televised only once a year. It was true of the Wizard of Oz, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, and seasonal favorites like The Year Without a Santa Claus, and it was also true of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

If not for our reliable mothers and the ubiquitous TV-Guides in most of our homes, many of us would have probably missed the showing of the Chocolate Factory, and the annual brilliance of Gene Wilder as Wonka.

From the moment I first watched him limp out of the candy factory and fall forward into a magical and playful somersault, to the last heart-wrenching scene with Charlie and Grandpa Joe, Wilder had me hooked.

Years later, my older brother and I would use the oldest trick in the book at the movie theater: buy tickets for some G-rated film – like Popeye or the Shaggy D.A., and then walk into the film house showing Pryor and Wilder in Silver Streak or Stir Crazy. “That’s right, we bad. Don’t want no sh%* either.”

Every time Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder appeared on screen together, one could bet that their on-camera chemistry would deliver stellar performances.

If not for queasy film executives, Pryor would have accompanied Wilder in Mel Brooks’ masterpiece Blazing Saddles. Alas, all was not lost; Wilder was paired with the supremely talented Cleavon Little, who played Sheriff Bart; and Wilder, of course, delivered a stunning performance as the washed-up Waco Kid:

“My name is Jim. But most people call me … Jim.”

Whether he was Wonka or Waco or Frankenstein, Wilder’s performances were felt down to the marrow.

Of all of the tributes I’ve read, I think Jim Carrey said it best: Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take human form. If there’s a heaven, he has a Golden Ticket.

The great glass elevator has one more stop.

RIP Gene Wilder

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