This is a hard one to write…
All for a man I knew… and yet, did not.
I have the soundtrack to Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory playing in the background… and when “Pure Imagination” came on I lost it… all of it.
“Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.”
“Come with me
And you’ll be
In a world of pure imagination.”
Tears… Lots of them… Wow…
I remember heading over to Jeff G.’s house after junior high school (yeah, that’s what we called it back East) or maybe high school… and watching Blazing Saddles on some fancy contraption his dad had. It wasn’t a Beta Max or Reel to Reel or VCR… but something that I had never seen before. The key, however, was that it allowed us to watch movies at home. And if I recall there were some first run movies… Maybe… Hmmm. Amazing technology back then… and he had it in his house!
We laughed our asses off those afternoons… and yes, part of it was that we were young and silly… and so cuss words and fart jokes made us roll on the floor… or ROTFL as the kids say now.
That was actually my re-introduction to Gene Wilder… and yet another film that would be placed high on my all-time favorite movie list. It’s still way up there for me.
Those who know me… and by default, know my email address, know how much the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory means to me.
It is my most favorite movie… my comfort film… my go to when I’m sad or when dreams seem too far away and a happily ever after seems unattainable.
I saw it when it first came out, and like my daughter, was “creeped out” by certain things… Though for her it is the Oompa Loompas… and for me it was Slugworth and the “Acid trip” tunnel. I have seen the movie countless times… on the big screen… on the small screen… and on any screen in between. It is, in a word, magical.
Obviously the credit goes to the wonderful story by Roald Dahl, the writer of the screenplay, David Seltzer and the film’s director Mel Stuart. The cast is so spot on and absolutely perfect and I will never forget having Roy Kinnear sign an autograph for me backstage after a National British Theatre production in Chicago, and look at me so inquisitively as I told him that Willy Wonka was my favorite film.
I cherish and adore this film… and of course, the main reason is the merry prankster, Gene Wilder.
His performance here… and so many of his performances are wild and bold… daring and provocative… hilarious… and funny to the point of gut laughter, nose snorts and tears… and yet always… ALWAYS anchored with a deep soul and a gentle heart.
The very notion that life could change for the better, that dreams could come true and that a good, sweet and innocent child could live happily ever after was empowering. The movie actually gave me hope that nice guys could finish first and that anything was possible.
I remember many years ago going on a quest… One I am still on, I might add… to find a copy of the original screenplay. I did not want a transcription… but a shooting script… a copy of something the very cast and Gene may have actually held in his hand.
I called his production company and had a great conversation with the very talented director Andy Fickman, who was working development for Gene at the time. It seemed that back then, people did not keep things like that… and while I did not get to actually speak to Gene, Andy did reach out to him on my behalf… but no script.
They put me in touch with Mel Stuart, and while he also did not have a copy of the script to share, we had a most amazing conversation about the film. He was not at all surprised that my love of the movie had grown each year… and that with each viewing I saw new things… discovered nuances and subtleties… and understood a heck of a lot more… jokes, innuendo, etc.
He told me that he made the film for his children, with the idea that they would watch it and grow up with it… and then share it with their own children… and on and on. He made a point, like Roald Dahl’s writing, never to talk down to kids… which is part of the reason the film holds up and is so timeless. It literally grows along with us… alongside of us… It expands and develops, and each viewing brings me something new and undiscovered… Amazing!
While I have yet to get my hands on an actual script, I can quote the movie verbatim… and “We are the music makers and we are the dreamers of dreams” is not only my favorite quote ever… but my go to mantra when times get tough.
And to give full credit, the quote is from the amazing poem “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaughnessy, who actually coins the term movers and shakers right here!!!
“We are the music makers
And we are the dreamers of dreams
Wandering by lone sea-breakers
And sitting by desolate streams
World-losers and world-forsakers
On whom the pale moon gleams
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world forever, it seems.”
THIS is the kind of film Willy Wonka is!
So that started my love affair with Gene Wilder. From there it went backwards and forwards, in terms of the chronology of his movies…
I watched him in The Producers… Bonnie And Clyde (his first film role)… Young Frankenstein… Blazing Saddles… The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother… Silver Streak… The Frisco Kid… Stir Crazy, and on and on…
And not just once… I watched all of those movies over and over and over! I still do!
Young Frankenstein is my second favorite Gene Wilder film… and may very well be my all-time favorite comedy. His performance is stunning and riveting and absolutely hysterical. Wild and manic, yet always in control. And with Gene, there was always a kindness… a gentle quality… In a way, he reminded me and reminds me of my Dad… funny as hell, but so sweet and gentle… kind and caring…
Part of Gene’s remarkable skill is that you get lost in his characters and in his films, and yet as I started to realize I wanted to be an actor, I studied those films… intensely. I wanted to see what he was doing… figure it out, if I could.
Listening to Gene talk about how he worked with the sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything you always wanted to know about sex* should be required for anyone studying acting and film acting. That is more than a brilliant comic… that is a wise, thoughtful and methodical actor working out a role.
Jerome Silberman was born on June 11, 1933. He had a rough childhood and was bullied and assaulted at school for being the only Jewish boy there. But at age 13, his study of theatre and acting began and he went off to study the same at the University of Iowa.
Getting cast in Mother Courage and Her Children, starring Anne Bancroft, was probably “the” moment of his career, as she introduced him to her boyfriend Mel Brooks, who promised Gene that they would be working together.
Three years later he read with Zero Mostel, to co-star with him in Springtime for Hitler, which of course would become 1968’s The Producers.
My favorite Gene Wilder story is the one he tells about his one condition for taking the role of Willy Wonka. When Mel Stuart offered him the part, he said:
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself… but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
Mel Stuart asked him why this was so important, and he said: “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
That my friends, is an actor and a story teller working at the height of this craft… and why Gene Wilder was, quite literally, a genius.
When a celebrity passes away, especially one we idolize, and one who works in a business or industry that we work in or strive to work in… it comes with a mixture of emotions. I have stopped several times to tears and crying and a sad, lonely feeling of emptiness and loss… and also regret… regret for not fulfilling my desire to be like Gene… to have that kind of career… to create some of the same magic he did. And while it is not too late… it is NEVER too late… so much time and life has already passed me by.
And I regret never having met him. I came close… so close. I once saw him on the streets in NYC and could not muster the courage to approach him. I so wanted to say hello… but I was in awe… and it seemed like he was focused on other things, so I chose to respect his privacy. I would have loved to have had some time with him… a conversation… even a handshake… but alas… I did not.
I so wish I could “Strike that, reverse it…”
But life goes on and we all need to remember:
“If you want to view paradise
Simply look around and view it.
Anything you want to, do it
Want to change the world
There’s nothing to it.”
On August 29, 2016 at the age of 83 we lost a legend… a most gentle and kind soul…
“But don’t forget what happened to the man who suddenly got everything he always wanted…
He lived happily ever after.”
Gene Wilder made so many of us happy… his films continue to provide the happily ever after… and he certainly gave each and every one of us a Golden Ticket.
RIP to my favorite actor in the world… and tell Gilda and Anne, Marty, Madeline and Richard, and anyone else you see hello and thanks from me.