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Gene Wilder: It Hurts to Laugh

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 28, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK -- The story of Gene Wilder's life is filled with comedy, but ultimately it is not funny. The light stuff is immortalized in the films that turned Wilder into one of the great comic actors of his day -- "The Producers," "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Young Frankenstein," to name a few. The rest of it is pretty dark, and Wilder remembers the day the darkness settled in.

It's 1941, and Wilder is an 8-year-old named Jerry Silberman, living in Milwaukee. A doctor has come by to check on his mother, who has recently had a heart attack and is just home from the hospital. After an examination, the doctor spots Jerry, grabs him by the arm, leans in and whispers, "Don't ever argue with your mother -- you might kill her."


Gene Wilder, now 71, rejects most of the scripts sent to him these days. "It's mostly stuff that they think I can make funny," he says. "I can't." (Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

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The doctor is fat and his face is sweating. "Try to make her laugh," he adds. Then he's out the door.

For years, Wilder labored under the impression that a few sharp words could mortally wound his mom, and that some well-timed jokes might actually extend her life. Sound heavy? It gets heavier in "Kiss Me Like a Stranger," Wilder's new autobiography, a book as frank and raw as a session with a shrink, filled with blunt musings about sex, acting and the search for love and happiness. There's plenty of show business in here, too, with memorable walk-ons by the stars and directors Wilder collaborated with over the years, including Woody Allen and Mel Brooks, as well as Gilda Radner, the wife he lost to cancer in 1989.

But the book is far more hug-and-ponder than kiss-and-tell. Wilder comes across as a sensitive and damaged man who spends years trying to figure out how to enjoy himself. Through his teen years, any sort of happiness led to excruciating guilt, because his mother, whose heart was impaired as a child by rheumatic fever, was forever in physical pain. One day in March, when he was 18, Wilder was gripped by an obsession that for a time overwhelmed his life: He began to pray compulsively -- sometimes for hours and hours on end.

"My mother was suffering every day of her life and what right did I have to be happy if she was suffering?" Wilder murmurs, sitting in the corner banquette of the dining room at the Carlyle Hotel last week. "So whenever I got happy about something, I felt the need to cut it off, and the only way to cut it off was to pray. 'Forgive me Lord.' For what, I didn't know."

At 71, he has the relieved and slightly haggard look of a survivor, which in some regards is what he is. Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999, Wilder is today in total remission.

"I'm one of the lucky ones," he says. The unruly reddish hair now looks nearly bleached of color, and if you haven't caught any of his television cameos -- he guest-starred in 2002 on a couple episodes of "Will & Grace" -- he looks a lot older than the last time you saw him. But his eyes still register the wonder and gentleness that were leitmotifs of his years in front of the camera. He still seems on the verge of saying something hysterical.

But he doesn't. In person, as on the printed page, Wilder is a man of few punch lines. There's hardly a yuk in "Kiss Me," and throughout a 45-minute interview, he says nothing intended to amuse. This doesn't surprise his friends, who describe Wilder as thoughtful, warm and the least shticky of funny men. But the full extent of his mental and emotional struggles is news even to people who have known him for decades.

"I had dinner with him in 1987, right after my own book came out," says actor Charles Grodin, who met Wilder in the 1950s and is a pal to this day. "And he told me at the time that he wished my book had gone deeper. I was slightly irritated. I said, 'That's as deep as I get.' Now that his book is out, I see what he means."

An autobiography had been percolating in Wilder's mind for a long time, but he didn't focus on the idea until two years ago when he found himself in California, where his fourth wife, Karen, was nursing her mother back to health. He thought he'd be there a week. The trip lasted more than two months. He started writing in part to ease the boredom, and as he composed, he began to see his life as a series of fortunate accidents.

"When I wrote down those accidents," he says, "the floodgates opened."

The first was the visit by that doctor, which in hindsight set off something in his head that eventually, he says, led him to the stage, which eventually led him to the movies. Up until that moment, he'd never tried to make his mother, or anyone else, laugh, but after that house call, he did. And when he succeeded, he gained confidence, even as his psyche became more fragile. The Demon, as he calls his compulsion to pray, arrived without warning and left a few years after his mother's death when he was 23. Her passing freed him up to experience a variety of joys, including sex.

"About a month after my mother died, I bought my first condom," he says.

He was drafted into the Army in 1956, where he spent much of his time as an aide in a psychiatric ward, helping to administer electroshock therapy to patients. Two years later, he was discharged. He changed his name -- Wilder is from Thornton Wilder, Gene is from a Thomas Wolfe novel -- took classes with Lee Strasberg, auditioned a lot and married a woman whom he began to dislike on the drive to their honeymoon.

His break came in 1963 when he starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a production of "Mother Courage and Her Children." Bancroft's boyfriend, Mel Brooks, came around often and invited him to join the couple for the weekend at Fire Island. Brooks had the first 30 pages of a screenplay, then titled "Springtime for Hitler," and he thought Wilder would be great for one of the leads. It took several years to raise the money for what would become "The Producers," but Wilder's performance as a crooked, kooky accountant was worth the wait. Along with Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate," Wilder was defining a new Hollywood archetype: the neurotic leading man.

Though "The Producers" is now a cult fave and a Tony-showered Broadway musical, the movie was a commercial flop the first time around. Three years later, a director named Mel Stuart was casting for the star of a kids' movie about a reclusive chocolate maker who invites a group of children to tour his factory, then tests their values and mettle with a series of temptations. Fred Astaire and Joel Grey were recommended for the role of Willy Wonka in the film, based on the book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," by Roald Dahl. But Stuart knew he had the man as soon as Wilder read for the part.

"He had been in 'The Producers,' but he wasn't a superstar," says Stuart. "I looked at him and I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka. He walked to the elevator after he read and I ran after him and I said, 'As far as I'm concerned, you've got it.' "

Stuart's partners were miffed by that outburst, because it handed Wilder all the leverage in the subsequent negotiations. But he didn't care. And he knew immediately that he'd found not just a star but a creative partner when Wilder insisted on one major tweak to the script. He told Stuart that he wouldn't take the role unless Wonka entered the movie, and revealed himself to the public for the first time, pretending to be crippled and feigning the need for a cane. It's one of the most memorable moments in the film: In one instant Wonka appears to halt, the next he tumbles forward and leaps to his feet with a smile that says, "Fooled you!"

"I knew that from then on," Wilder says, "the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth." Or whether Wonka was good or evil, sane or crazy, a question that isn't resolved until the last few minutes of the film. The tumble itself took preparation. "I spent about three weeks rehearsing that flip with a gymnastics coach."

People tend to remember "Wonka" as a hit, but it wasn't. It was beaten by "Ben," a movie about a rat, the week of its release and finished 54th in the overall box office returns that year, Stuart says. Not until the movie played on television, in the early 1980s, did it actually take off.

But Wilder made an impression on a lot of people, including Woody Allen, who hired him for a part in "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid To Ask." (He plays a doctor who falls in love with a sheep.) Two years later, he was the Waco Kid, a gunslinger recovering from alcoholism, in "Blazing Saddles," Mel Brooks's first success as a director.

The 1970s were Wilder's decade. He seemed to turn up in every other comedy of the era, most notably a horror-movie spoof called "Young Frankenstein," which he co-wrote with Brooks. By then, Wilder was in that rarefied place in the business where studio heads let you direct ("The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother") and pair you in buddy movies ("Silver Streak" with Richard Pryor).

Wilder had already been twice divorced when he met Gilda Radner in 1981, as the two prepared to make a film called "Hanky Panky." Though charming and funny, Radner comes off as a difficult person to love in "Kiss Me Like a Stranger." (The title, by the way, was her idea, a phrase that she thought sounded interesting.) She was needy and deeply insecure and bulimic, but she was often delightful, and when she urged Wilder to marry, he couldn't say no. When she later tried to get pregnant, doctors discovered that Radner had ovarian cancer.

"She was sick for a long time," says Dom DeLuise, a friend and one-time co-star, calling from California. "I was at a dinner party at Mel Brooks's house and Gilda came in, with no hair, wearing a scarf around her head, kissing everyone and saying, 'I'm still here, I'm still here.' When she passed away, no matter what you said to Gene, his face didn't move. He was just stunned and numb."

But Wilder recovered, and in 1991, he married the woman he describes as the love of his life. The pair live in Connecticut, in a house that Radner owned and bequeathed to him. Wilder's own cancer problems are behind him now -- he describes his blood tests as "very good" -- and he spends much of his time painting as well as acting in the nearby Westport Country Playhouse. Movie scripts arrive often, but he's turned nearly all of them down, in part because he's unimpressed with the material.

"It's mostly stuff that they think I can make funny," he says. "I can't."

He sounds as if he's too busy relishing his newfound contentment to worry about anything as trifling as a career. This sort of happiness is something he says he wasn't equipped for until recently, and he seems to want to savor it. Even stories that aren't funny, such as the life of Gene Wilder, can have happy endings.

"When they pass each other in the house, there's a kiss," says Charles Grodin, describing the home life of Mr. and Mrs. Wilder. "I mean, I can understand kissing someone 'hello' and 'goodbye,' but they kiss each other as they move around the house. I've never seen that before."


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