My earliest memories of Gene Wilder exist in a land of pure imagination. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was consummate entertainment as a child. The effects were colorful and fun, the subject matter was candy and the adventure was exciting, strange and engrossing. And leading us through this world was an eccentric but ultimately kind and sympathetic Gene Wilder as the eponymous chocolatier.
But for me, Wilder wasn’t just an extraordinary performer; he was also a unique voice on-screen. Here was this curly-haired Jewish man who’d managed to become a real star. On top of that, he was a comic actor who could make you howl with laughter (his chemistry with Zero Mostel in The Producers is legendary) but who also had real tender chops for drama. He had range and talent to spare.
In a world where curly hair is often code for a conniving, stereotypical Jewish caricatures (Randall in Recess, Jeremy Jamm in Parks and Rec, Jacob on Glee, the Goldmans on Family Guy), Wilder meant a lot to me. To this day he represents an oddity in American entertainment: a well-liked Jewish performer who brought joy to generations. He didn’t just give Charlie Bucket the factory — he normalized my identity. For that, I am thankful.
The role that defines Gene Wilder for me is Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced ‘Frahnkensteen.'”). Young Frankenstein puts Wilder’s comedy and writing abilities on full display. His dry humor and capacity to keep a straight face while Marty Feldman cracks joke after joke always leaves me mesmerized. Who can resist the scene where Frankenstein and his monster dance to “Puttin’ on the Ritz”? Wilder, it seems, innately understood humor in all its forms.
What struck me about Gene Wilder was how hard he worked. Mel Brooks once spoke about how much soul he put into Young Frankenstein. The amount of dedication Wilder exuded to his co-workers inspired my profound sense of respect for him as an actor. Clearly, he had an impressive work ethic to match his singular sense of humor.
One of my favorite smaller films he did was a made-for-TV version of Alice in Wonderland where he played the Mock Turtle. I particularly remember his haunting rendition of “Beautiful Soup.” His character and the subject matter are absurd, but Wilder plays it straight. It was this kind of performance that never failed to generate laughs. Everything he took part in, no matter the size of the project, received his fullest attention. That’s why his catalog is equally memorable and impressive. Thank you so much for your passion, Mr. Wilder.
I could say that Gene Wilder’s inimitable performance as Willy Wonka left the most lasting impression on me, but I’d be lying. When I think of Wilder, I remember a line from an entirely different character: “My name is Jim, but most people call me… Jim.”
This brief, perfect moment, taken from Mel Brooks’ classic Western satire Blazing Saddles, defines Wilder in my mind. He conveys everything we need to know about the washed-up Waco Kid with a few small expressions. He holds his mouth loose, limply purses his lips, and lets wilted whimsy flicker in his eyes. He sinks into a wistful kind of sadness in the space of a few seconds as he nears the end of the sentence… then shifts his gaze the tiniest bit, raises his brows, and lets that final “Jim” out like a sigh of defeat.
That was Wilder’s magic. In six seconds, he could move you from sympathy to blatant sadness and then fill you with a burst of uncontrollable laughter. I wouldn’t be surprised if he held a Ph.D. in comedic timing, but he seems scrappier, a comic autodidact. Consider another one of Jim’s lines: “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons!” That ellipsis holds the entire joke.
Wilder was effervescence, jubilance and generosity personified under a shock of curls. His screen presence, per his name, was genial. He showed me that silence could be the funniest part of a punchline, and that genuine joy could exist anywhere, even in misery.
As a young French guy, I didn’t quite grasp what Gene Wilder brought to American popular culture — yet he was undoubtedly a defining part of my childhood. Indeed, still remember seeing Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory because it was the first time I ever watched a movie with its original voices (all TV and most movies for young audiences are systematically dubbed in France).
The film came on an old VHS tape bought by an American friend of my family who offered it to me as a present. I was around 6 years old and, to be honest, I didn’t quite understand all the dialogue (there weren’t any subtitles). Regardless, I was immersed in the colorful story; I would have followed Willy Wonka anywhere in his candy world. Language barrier didn’t keep me from watching the movie over and over. Willy Wonka eventually became a real help to my efforts to learn English.
That is the main souvenir I carry from Gene Wilder, who still remains the best Willy Wonka I’ve ever seen on screen. If I can’t pretend that I’m familiar with all Gene Wilder’s works, I recognize him as a popular culture icon who managed to cross the Atlantic in some small way. Although he is no longer with us, I’m sure that many people from my generation and my parents’ will remember him for the comic genius he was. So my last words to him will be: thank you for everything, Mr. Wilder.
I am among the people who only knew of Gene Wilder’s presence in the greater cultural milieu because of two things: his role as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and later, because of that Condescending Wonka meme. Writing this retrospective has given me a chance to explore his body of work, which is turning out to be a delightful experience.
The first and only time I watched Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory was when I was 12 and lived in the Netherlands. My class saw a version of the movie that was badly dubbed in Dutch. It might have been the language barrier, and I probably didn’t understand the intricacies of Wilder’s comedic performance, but my takeaway of the movie back then was: it seems weird, and Willy Wonka is scary.
Ten years later, I’m looking and clips from Wilder’s movies on YouTube and I’m surprised by how much of his stuff still holds up. His perfect sense of comedic timing in Young Frankenstein, his dry delivery in Blazing Saddles and yes, his snarky one-liners as Willy Wonka. What scared me off about Wilder’s performance as a child is what I find so fascinating now: his ability to convey his humor with a touch of darkness and his knack for finding moments of wit in situations where a normal person would have given up in exasperation.
His work is easy to rewatch even in 2016. His characters are sarcastic, almost self-aware, and his one-liners are simply absurd. Take, for example, that great line in The Frisco Kid: “I don’t want to hurt you — I just want to make you kosher!” And underneath all that, there are moments of true emotion and vulnerability. Although Wilder is gone, his body of work remains a treasure trove for new fans to explore.
Though I’d love to say I’m Gene Wilder’s biggest fan, sadly, I can’t. I don’t have a defining childhood memory of Wilder or a great affiliation with his work. In fact, dare I say it I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory all the way through!
(That probably says more about my childhood than Gene Wilder.)
Yet despite my glaring knowledge gaps of Wilder’s career, he’s a face that permeates even my absent mind. Those golden curls, that purple jacket and those mischievous eyes are etched not just into my subconscious but that of popular culture itself.
Wilder’s legacy has been somewhat trivialised by that infamous meme, but long before the social media devices buzzed with their first notifications, he held the magical ability to capture our attention and tame an audience with the simplest of expressions. He’s undoubtedly an immortal icon of modern cinema whether we can recall his films or not. When we look back through the pantheon of cinema greats we’ll always see Gene Wilder’s unique aura of mania and mischief. There’s no doubt cinema has lost a star, but Wilder’s inimitable personality is unlikely to be forgotten anytime soon by those who caught that glint in his eye.