Gene Wilder died Monday.
To say that news put a damper on my day is a gross understatement. Wilder was one of the best, one of my favorites.
A great comedic actor, he also had the ability to make you sad.
From what I’ve read in the past 12 hours, he was a great man, too.
Wilder never received the credit he deserved for his acting. He was nominated for some major acting awards, but never won.
I think the reason he never won was simple. His acting appeared effortless.
And he had that face … and those eyes.
You could never really tell what Gene Wilder was thinking.
His mouth said one thing, his facial expression — and those eyes — said something else.
There was a twinkle in his eye that no other actor has or had.
“Stir Crazy” was one of his best roles, the perfect vessel for him.
Playing opposite Richard Pryor, one scene focuses on Pryor showing Wilder how to be coo … by walking, by strutting, by bobbing his head. Pryor even tells him how to talk. It’s a great scene.
But what Pryor doesn’t know — until the end — is that Gene Wilder was always “cool,” as “cool” as they come. And he didn’t need the walk, the talk, the upturned collars to be cool. He just had to be himself.
Wilder was best at being himself: funny, in a quiet way; honest, to a fault; vulnerable, to say the least; and as generous and as caring as any person could be.
The chicken costume in “Stir Crazy” was funny. Pryor teaching Wilder to be more “black” and therefore “cool” is hilarious.
When he gets thrown into a cell with Grossberger … the ending isn’t what you expected. But it is classic Wilder. Funny and honest.
He gets the woman at the end of “Stir Crazy” and drives off into the sunset with JoBeth Williams at his side.
In the end, what makes Gene Wilder so “cool” is his honesty, his vulnerability and his big heart.
If you’re my age, you’ll remember many of his movies: “Silver Streak,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.
I think Wilder would have been great in the age of silent movies.
Because of his facial expressions … and those eyes.
Often times there is sadness and depression and darkness that drive comedians.
In Wilder’s case, that sadness had a lot to do with the death of his wife, Gilda Radner, of ovarian cancer, just five years after they married.
I don’t think he ever recovered from that death.
Although Wilder could make you laugh, there was just something real, something vulnerable about his acting.
Not long after his wife’s death, Wilder wrote about it People magazine. I haven’t read that essay in years. I read it again Tuesday night.
That piece was honest. It was soul-baring. And it made me tear up once again.
And it is Gene Wilder. Just a class act. The classiest.
The role that made Wilder most popular was Willy Wonka in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
His sardonic sense of humor made that movie.
And that movie, more than 25 years after it was made, is the reason Wilder remains so popular today.
In one brief scene, Wilder looks you in the eye as he listens to what you are saying, but you really have no idea if he is listening and agrees with you, or if he thinks you are the biggest dipwad in the world.
There is a meme on the Internet based on that scene. There are thousands built on that scene.
Wilder, dressed in his “Willy Wonka” garb, leaning on his hand, with the most sardonic, fake, evil, don’t-give-me-any-BS smile.
It may be the most famous meme character of all time.
Gene Wilder may be dead, which is sad, but his death resulted for me in a trip down Memory Lane.
And that made me smile.
Which is what Gene Wilder was all about.
Rest in Peace Gene Wilder.
I hope you and Gilda are together again, dancing together and making each other — and the rest of heaven — smile.
Russ Kent can be reached at email@example.com.
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