The outpouring of affection and praise after his death proves I am not the only person who loved the work of Gene Wilder. He was the consummate comic-actor, not just a pie-in-the-face comedian (though he could slapstick with the best) and oh so different from a straight actor. And nobody perfected the art of going from absolute calm to 99-mph hysterics in three seconds better than him.
His collaboration with Mel Brooks was comic alchemy — the result of their mutual pedigree of traditional Jewish humor that has always been able to extract humor from the face of disaster. Thousands of years in the making, Wilder’s modern version of it resonated so beautifully in his work. He was the Jewish “everyman” — always more sinned against than sinning in his portrayals, and it was through his perseverance through victimhood in many of his films, not his reveling in it, where his humor reached great heights
Only Jewish artists like Brooks and Wilder could get away with making the “smash” Broadway hit “Springtime for Hitler.” And by doing so, turned the tables on the horror that was Germany from 1932-1945. The comedic tour de force that was “The Producers” was removed from the terror of the Holocaust by less than a generation, yet, Mel Brooks’ creative genius and Gene Wilder’s performing genius had Jewish characters wearing Nazi arm bands on the streets of New York after sealing the deal with a Nazi playwright whose most devout wish was to let the world finally understand what a great dancer the Führer was.
I guess you can go back to the source material of the Book of Genesis to see that special relationship between Jews and disaster and how God intervenes. When Abraham bargains with God over how many people might be spared in Sodom, it almost comes off like a routine in a Catskills summer resort. It shows two very important things: Abraham is quite the negotiator and God will always have a soft spot for his people.
“Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose 10 are found there…” (Genesis 18:32). This exchange ends with the Lord finally having enough and walking away. This is the birthright that has allowed Jewish humor to be able to squeeze out so much joy from so much disaster, and Gene Wilder was the master painter in this medium.
The films Wilder made with Mel Brooks transcend generations. My kids can quote chapter and verse from “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein” and yes, even “Blazing Saddles” (though not in polite company for that last one). And the essence of Wilder’s on-screen personas in all three of these films, his very best in my opinion, is from the vantage point of love. His Leo Bloom has a son to father love (albeit a little misplaced given the larceny in his mentor’s heart) with Zero Mostel’s wonderfully crooked and manic Max Bialystock. Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein becomes the head of a twisted and bizarre and very funny family, and his gunslinger Jim befriends the new sheriff in “Blazing Saddles” when no one else will. Even his Willy Wonka, Wilder’s weirdest performance, ends with a sense of love and affection for the worthy and decent Charlie.
At the end of “The Producers,” as they await sentencing for all of their crimes and misdemeanors, Wilder’s Leo Bloom gives a beautiful and impassioned defense of the utterly indefensible Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, and the film ends with the duo in prison creating yet another scam with joy and love in their hearts. His trademark slow burn that would erupt in a frenzy of hysterical anger felt like Wilder giving voice to 5,000 years of pain and oppression and by turning it into humor, making the memory of all that pain and oppression a little more tolerable.
In the obits it has been reported that Wilder kept his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease a secret because he did not want to spread unhappiness amongst the throngs of people who so fondly remembered him or who would see him on the street and say, “There’s Willy Wonka.” For a man who wanted to be an actor by the time he was 12, I can’t think of a lovelier last “act.”
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.