Monday, August 29, 2016

R.I.P. Gene Wilder

So sorry to hear today of the passing of Gene Wilder.  He was 83.  What a truly talented, funny, and from what I've always heard -- lovely man.   I didn't know him personally.  Sitting in a movie theater once with him doesn't count.  But I know someone who did know him -- and worked with him.   Tom Straw, a terrific writer and dear friend.  So I reached out to Tom who graciously agreed to share some personal memories of Gene Wilder with my readers.   Tom, I can't thank you enough, especially now during your time of loss.  This is a wonderful profile that really gives you a feel of who Gene Wilder really was.  R.I.P. "Genedy." 

“Some Memories of the Great Gene Wilder”

Gene Wilder was much loved, and, for anyone reading this who wonders, your affection is well-placed.

My first memory of Gene was when I was a disc jockey in San Diego with a certain Ken Levine, going to see Blazing Saddles, laughing our asses off.

Flash forward to the year 1999. I’m living in Connecticut and a mutual friend from LA is visiting, staying at Gene and Karen’s house in Stamford, and asks if my family would like to come over for brunch the next day. It would be my first meeting with Gene, and it was memorable. My kids were quite young, and, at brunch, conversation went to which of his films would be appropriate for them to see. Someone said, “Young Frankenstein.” Gene and I made eye contact, and in unison said, “Fronckensteen, please.” A fan crush became a friendship.

The next week, I got a call from Gene. He was writing the second of a TV movie series he was also starring in, and felt stalled. He asked if I would mind reading his pages and offer any thoughts. It’s one of those reality-check occasions where you stare at the phone and then say, “Well, um, sure…” I don’t need to say that his writing was terrific. As an actor he had a writer’s ear and a director’s eye. But I did offer a few suggestions (I would never have presumed to give him notes). He listened graciously and incorporated them, for the most part, but beyond that, my agent got a call a few days later. Gene Wilder had an idea for a movie, and would I write the screenplay with him? Fuck yeah.

Our routine was to write a few days a week at his house. The work went very well, and man, did we laugh. One of the true joys was reading finished pages back and forth. Once, I read a line of dialogue and he busted up. I said, “What do you know, my reading made Gene Wilder laugh.” He nodded and said sagely, “The trick is, Tomedy, can you do it seventy five times, the same way, for each take?” That’s when he started calling me Tomedy.

Our phone calls always began, “Hello, Tomedy?” And I’d reply, “Yes. Genedy?”

In downtime, I would pump him about directing and an actor’s private work. I was especially keen to know about his maniacal “Live! Liiiiive!” from Young Frankenstein. He grew very serious and said that when he did that scene, he wasn’t thinking of comedy, but tapping into the deep anguish he had once felt about someone he cared about who’d been at death’s door. And yet, we all laugh.

He told me that the best way to judge a good director was to watch the movie with the sound off, like on an airplane. The storytelling would carry. Or not.

Gene was a talented artist in other ways, too. He was a fine watercolorist. I do oils and acrylics, but when the screenplay work was done, he invited me to join him and his wife Karen for a few hours of watercolor painting together. A memory I’ll always treasure.

Gene got very ill during our time working together. He made me swear to tell nobody. Now that he’s gone, I suppose I am released and can tell two stories about that. I was also working then as Executive Producer of COSBY, which also starred Madeline Kahn. She came to me one day to break the news that she had cancer. She said, “I know Gene is a friend of yours. Will you promise-promise you will not tell him?” I agreed. And kept my word to both, feeling so strange to be in that sad triangulation.

Happily, Gene pulled through, but there’s one other thing that bears mentioning. During that illness years ago, Mel Brooks and Charles Grodin were not only visitors to Gene. They were constant visitors, staying with him for hours at a time over weeks and months to bolster him. Nobody better ever say anything bad to me about those two after what they did for Gene.

Of course, they did it for Gene Wilder, who was a mensch. From the day we met 17 years ago he was always a joy. Honest, brave, caring, smart, talented… and so damned funny. I remember once we took a break from that screenplay and were having lunch in his kitchen. From the basement, Karen called out there was a dead mouse. He paused and gave me that signature Gene look. I said, “It’s your house, buddy.” Resigned, he got up and went to the basement. One minute later—perfect, perfect timing—I hear him at the top of his lungs, “Live! Liiiiiive!"

I’m kinda saying the same thing now in my head. He always will.

29 comments:

DrBOP said...

Thank you Mr. Straw, very beautiful and hilarious. I never had the pleasure, but I always thought that he had the kindest eyes that I have ever seen.....it was like a window into his soul.

Here's a short article about Gene's tv work (and in the sitcom with Alice Cooper as guest star, wait for the "One of these days, Alice." line; and I wonder how much discussion there was about going for it or not:

http://zap2it.com/2016/08/gene-wilder-died-look-back-at-tv-career/

And here's an interview he gave to Abigail Pogreben in her book Stars Of David:

http://www.tabletmag.com/scroll/212030/gene-wilder-dead-at-83-the-comedic-icon-once-said-do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you






Roger Raines said...

Amen.

MikeK.Pa. said...

"As an actor he had a writer’s ear and a director’s eye." Talk about a talent trifecta.
Nobody played manic or neurotic better than Gene Wilder.

B.A. said...

RIP one of my beloved stars. First with THE PRODUCERS, then in American Playhouse's THE RHINOCEROS (again with Mostel!) and of course SADDLES and that candy movie...

Joseph Scarbrough said...

2016 has not been a good year for celebrities. Not just Gene Wilder, but we've also lost David Bowie, Prince, Doris Roberts, Garry Marshall, and even more that aren't coming to mind at the moment.

So Ken, I take it this is who you named the character Tom Straw after in yours and David's first M*A*S*H script, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind"?

404 said...

We've had a lot of deaths this year, but I'm not ashamed to admit that THIS was the one that had me break down and cry. He will truly be missed.

Mike Barer said...

He could touch you. That's the secret of a great star!

Mr. Hollywood said...

Why is it that, as viewers and fans, we seem to be most touched by the passing of individuals who make us laugh? I guess I answered my own question. In our frightening world, we are desperate to be removed from all of the sad reality we live in ... and what better way then to just let loose a giant guffaw courtesy of the rare person who can deliver that? With the sad death of Robin Williams, and now Gene Wilder, I feel like I have lost dear family members. I had the joy and privilege of interviewing Robin many times, and once with Gene. But I treasure the time I spent with these gentle gifted giants of humor ... and think that although they are gone, we can still see and enjoy all of their work as long as humanity wants to have a giant guffaw!
Thank you Mr. Wilder for all of the positive endorphins!

D. McEwan said...

I had great luck seeing Blazing Saddles the first time. Gene was there. So were Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. It was a preview in Westwood, and I got to meet and talk with all three of them after the movie.

Later, I snuck onto the set when Mel was shooting the "Puttin' on the Ritz" scene for Young Frankenstein at the Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica, and watch Gene work. After a take of Peter Boyle being carried up the aisle, I turned to speak to the man watching the scene right behind me who had also been laughing, to say how funny it was, only it was Gene, one foot away. Since I had no business being there, my strategy was to call no attention to myself, so accidentally speaking to Gene made me stumble verbally. But he was quite nice, and did not ask the dreaded questions "Who are you?" or "Do you belong in here?"

I met Gene one last time, after a preview of YF, which included some scenes subsequently cut before release. This time I got to tell Mel and Gene face-to-face just how much I adored it and them.

There was no one like Gene Wilder. He was excessively brilliant. I am most sad today, and I'm watching YF.d

D. McEwan said...

The thing, I think, that makes Gene's death so painful is because it's not just Gene dying. Leo Bloom, Phillipe DeSissi, Willy Wonka, The Waco Kid, Froderick Fronkensteen, and Sigerson Holmes have all died at once, and it's too many to take in. We feel the loss of everyone of them.

Allan V said...

I'm ashamed to admit that I've never seen WWATCF, but I loved watching his other work every time I saw him on film or TV. And his work on behalf of cancer patients was incredibly kind and selfless. He will be greatly missed.

Gene gave a wonderful answer in a 2013 interview by Time Out New York on whether he would consider returning to acting "if the right project came along":

"I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, “Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.” But I don’t get anything like that." (Copied from the original source, not Wikipedia.)

RIP, Gene.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

R.I.P. He was great. And thanks, Tom, for your memories.

wg

Peter said...

A beautiful and moving tribute. Wilder sounds just as I perceived him to be: sweet, funny, warm hearted and kind.

Peter said...

It was reported last year that Steven Spielberg was going to meet with Gene Wilder with a view to casting him in Ready Player One. Now that we know Wilder had been battling Alzheimer's, he obviously wasn't able to do the movie, which is a great shame. I always held out hope we'd get one last great movie performance from him and it would have been wonderful if it could have been the Spielberg film, which instead has cast the odious Mark Rylance who's pals with a bunch of vile anti-Semites called, rather hilariously, Stop the War.

Barry Traylor said...

Thank you very much Mr. Straw for sharing your memories of Gene Wilder.

Carol said...

That's a beautiful tribute.

We've had a lot of them this year.

normadesmond said...

very sweet, thank you.

Michael said...

D. McEwan, you said it perfectly. So did Mr. Straw. It's rare to watch someone on screen and say to yourself, I know that he's a lovely human being. So it was with Gene Wilder.

Kirk said...

Wonderful tribute.

Anonymous said...

D. McEwan said...
"The thing, I think, that makes Gene's death so painful is because it's not just Gene dying. Leo Bloom, Phillipe DeSissi, Willy Wonka, The Waco Kid, Froderick Fronkensteen, and Sigerson Holmes have all died at once, and it's too many to take in. We feel the loss of everyone of them."


Great observation. I hadn't thought of that, but it's true.

Sean Robbins said...

This write up made me both laugh and cry simultaneously. It's clear that those who knew him truly loved him. His work has been part of my life for as long as I have memory. He will be missed.

James Van Hise said...

What bothers me the most about this is something that affects everyone. No matter what your life was like, you are punished by old age. Vincent Price didn't suffer from a terminal illness but he was very frail in his old age and hated every minute of it. His last role was in Edward Scissorhands and he wasn't well enough to film a couple more scenes which Tim Burton had planned so that what's there seems like an extended cameo. At one point Vincent Price was signing some pictures for Forry Ackerman and on one of them he wrote, "The last autograph" and that was his idea to write that. Gene Wilder deserved to always be as young a vital as he is in the clip you can find on Youtube of him singing "Pure Imagination."

Jason said...

I laughed out loud at the final mouse joke. Just like I did at a whole lot of other things I've heard him say, in his movies. Thanks for sharing this!

Anonymous said...

"What bothers me the most about this is something that affects everyone. No matter what your life was like, you are punished by old age."


Fiction was invented because every true story has a shitty ending.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fWXw8STaFlM

Janet Leahy said...

Thanks for your beautiful words, Tom.

So sorry for your loss.

Michael Carr said...

To this day, anytime I see windmills, I always hear him say, "Look out for the windmill, look out for the windmill!!

John Hammes said...

Gene and Gilda. Together again. Never to part.

Otto said...

That's a beautiful and enlightening remembrance. Thank you so much for sharing. A great talent and it sounds like a lovely man.

SharoneRosen said...

Thank you so much for sharing such precious memories Mr. Straw.
Gene will forever be a part of a warm memory for me of just how much my Dad loved The Frisco Kid. It was the only movie he ever wanted to own. VCRs were new. We bought him one and a copy of that film. I never so him smile so brightly. I still love that movie.