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.