Wit Intact, Gene Wilder Looks Back, Wryly

From The San Francisco Chronicle

March 21, 2008
By Steve Winn


The day before shooting ended on “Young Frankenstein,” the brilliantly fashioned 1974 comedy and enduring cult favorite, Gene Wilder was all but inconsolable as he sat on a bed on the set. His director and co-scriptwriter, Mel Brooks, found him there and asked him why he was so sad.

Wilder knew what was wrong but just couldn’t express it. Not only was the movie that had been more fun to make than any he’d ever worked on about to be finished – he played the title role in a dream cast that included Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman - but he was going back to an unhappy life in a miserable marriage.

“Transylvania was heaven,” Wilder told a packed house at the Castro Theatre on Wednesday night, and he didn’t want the mad-scientist make-believe world to end.

For the Castro audience, who had assembled for a screening of the film followed by an onstage conversation with Wilder presented by SF Sketchfest, “Young Frankenstein” clearly retained its celestial allure. So did a string of other films that embedded Wilder in the comic DNA of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. Questions from moderator Paul Gilmartin and praise-prefaced ones from the audience touched on “The Producers,” “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Silver Streak” (the first of Wilder’s collaborations with Richard Pryor), the lightly regarded “Hanky Panky” (in which he played opposite his wife-to-be Gilda Radner) and even the little-known “Funny About Love.”

Wilder was at once generous, frank and funny in his answers. Trim if a little stiff-jointed at 74, his unruly hair now thinned, he remains keen and quick-witted in conversation. The onscreen blend of rage, fear and tenderness (as Gilmartin aptly put it) has aged into a softly burnished wryness.

Wilder described his vivid first encounter with Zero Mostel, who grabbed the young actor by the hand and kissed him on the lips when he came to read for the role of Leo Bloom, opposite Mostel’s Max Bialystock, in “The Producers.” Mostel, Wilder understood, “knew actors” and was trying to dispel any tension. “It worked,” Wilder said. “I relaxed and gave a good reading and I got the part.”

He described Pryor’s mix of inspired improvisation during the “Stir Crazy” shoot and his erratic, drug-inflected behavior when the cameras weren’t rolling. One day, when the crew was tossing watermelon slices around like Frisbees and a rind landed in Pryor’s lap, the volatile comic declared, ” ‘I don’t have to take this anymore,’ ” quit show business for good on the spot and stormed off the set, only to return the next day as if nothing had happened.

What didn’t work

Wilder offered assorted movie-making anecdotes, including one about a scene that was falling flat in “Young Frankenstein” until Brooks gave Feldman’s hunch-backed servant Igor a Groucho Marxian double-entendre line. Feldman added the lunatic touch of biting a white fox fur that Kahn was wearing. Wilder ticked off, in the order they affected him, his formative comic influences - Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar. He blamed director Sidney Poitier for botching “Hanky Panky”: “Sidney did not understand the material.”

He recounted Brooks’ entire, less-than-ecstatic reaction to Wilder’s “Young Frankenstein” idea when he first heard it: ” ‘Cute. It’s cute.’ ” As for the movie’s classic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number sung and danced by Wilder’s Frankenstein and Boyle’s Creature, Brooks was against doing it until Wilder absolutely insisted. Now, in a distant second chapter, Wilder regards Brooks’ current Broadway musical version of “Young Frankenstein” as a misguided attempt to marry the director’s Borscht Belt humor to the wrong kind of story. Wilder came only for the curtain call on opening night and left immediately after.

Praise for peers

Asked for quick takes on various collaborators, Wilder said that Kahn “could be funny in a way you never imagined from looking at the script;” called Leachman “the funniest actress I ever worked with;” described Feldman “as very shy, except if he had a few drinks,” at which point he would take to shouting at authority figures; and said of Radner, who died of cancer in 1989: “Her spirit just lit up the world, but she had a need to be loved always, all the time. It was extremely exhausting for her.”

As entertaining as he can be in this vein, Wilder is anything but a show business graybeard living on past glories and settling old scores. In yet another fresh development from an artist who migrated from stage acting to films and subsequently added both screenwriting and directing to his resume, Wilder has taken to prose in recent years. Along with “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art,” an intimate and revealing memoir published in 2005, Wilder has written two novels. The first, a recycled screenplay called “My French Whore,” appeared in 2007. His latest, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” has just been published by St. Martin’s Press.

Life inspires art

The new book’s story, about a neurotic violinist who falls in love with a woman who’s apparently dying of cancer, bears unmistakable trace elements of Wilder’s own psychological makeup and his relationship to Radner. “Except this one has a happy

ending,” as the author points out. “Woman,” which is written in deliberately simple prose and is set in 1904, also contains a tribute to Wilder’s favorite writer, Anton Chekhov, who appears as a minor character.

When Wilder talks about writing, as he did over tea at the Four Seasons Hotel on Wednesday morning, he recounts a blissful, solitary regime of working from morning till late afternoon in his quiet country house in Connecticut, emerging only for tea, a light lunch and a kiss with his fourth wife, Karen, to whom he’s been happily married for 16 years. “Will I ever act again?” he mused. “I’d say it’s unlikely.”

Wilder unleashed a soft-spoken tirade about contemporary comedy. “F- , f- ing, mother – , f – er: It’s every other word. Sometimes the plot isn’t bad, but the language is horrible. You hear the dialogue and you think, ‘Who writes this s- ?’ ” In part, that’s the response of a man who’s detached from a world in which he once loomed large. At the Castro, Wilder could name only “Juno” as a recent comedy he’s admired and said he’d never seen a Will Ferrell film.

But there’s also a direct throughline from acting to writing for Wilder. In both activities, as he sees them, solitude is essential. “Stanislavski called it (acting) being alone in public,” said Wilder, citing the famed teacher of theater technique. First drawn to performing as a teenager in Milwaukee, Wilder (born Jerome Silberman) loved the personal freedom he felt onstage. He came to prefer acting in film, with the camera’s “eye of God” upon him. Wilder elaborates on the point in a television conversation with Alec Baldwin that airs April 15 on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). “I always feel safer on a movie set. They can’t come and get you,” he says. “I feel alone and safe in public.”

Wrestling with emotions

When Wilder was 18, what he calls the “demons” descended, unleashing a compulsive need to pray and seek forgiveness. “Maybe it was because my sexual desire was aroused then more than any time before in my life,” he said at the Four Seasons. He had just met the woman who would become, many years later, his second wife. Wilder’s emotional difficulties deepened over the years, fueled by the “rage” he felt at his first wife and the time he spent in the Army working on a neuro-psychiatric ward. “I saw all these psychotic breakdowns in front of me,” he said, “and I realized they were not that much more crazy than I am. At least that’s what I thought at the time.” Wilder later spent 71/2 years in therapy.

A lot of what people still cherish in Wilder’s performances has to do with the line he walked between hysteria and control, lunacy and innocence. That’s apparent in everything from “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask,” in which Wilder’s character falls in love with a sheep, to his blackface scene in “Silver Streak” and his film debut as a hostage in “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Wilder looked genuinely pleased by the torrent of applause and shouts that greeted him at the Castro. He stayed onstage for an hour answering questions and rebuffing pleas to sing “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka.” At his hotel, he projected a calmer and perhaps deeper satisfaction when discussing his travel plans for the next day. “I’ll be back home in Connecticut, in our house in the woods,” he said. “That I’m looking forward to.”

Gene Wilder: A Turner Classic Movies (TCM) tribute airs April 15. “Role Model: Gene Wilder,” a 5 p.m. conversation with Alec Baldwin, is followed by screenings of “The Producers ” (6:15 p.m.), “Blazing Saddles” (8 p.m.), a repeat of “Role Model” (10 p.m.), “Start the Revolution Without Me” (11:15 p.m.) and a repeat of “Blazing Saddles” (1 a.m.).

Wilder’s new novel, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t” (St. Martin’s Press; $19.95) is in bookstores.

To view clips from “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Stir Crazy” and other Gene Wilder films, along with interview segments, go to YouTube at links.sfgate.com/ZCUD. To view a trailer of “Young Frankenstein,” go to links.sfgate.com/ZCUE.

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