Do you have a friend you can just look at, understand each other and laugh? Something happened on the fly, there’s no need for a raised eyebrow or pointed stare and you both know exactly what’s going on.
That was Gene Wilder.
An actor synonymous with childhoods before generations of young movie-goers were ever cognizant of his full accomplishments, his skill, or even his name, the actor irremovable from and best known for his immortalization of Willy Wonka on screen passed away this week at the age of 83.
Wilder once famously remarked, “If the physical thing you’re doing is funny, you don’t have to act funny while doing it.” This was Wilder in a nutshell. Seen throughout his films and recently evidenced best, perhaps unintentionally, by a cavalcade of now popular ‘condescending Wonka’ memes, the performer could convey abject derision, silent joy, more-than-mild frustration or the pithiest of slights through a simple look, grimace, or more often than not, a blank stare.
Possessing a filmic comic talent rarely-rivalled, Wilder never had to act funny, he was funny. Shying away from being garish or overstated, famously proclaiming in Blazing Saddles that ‘My name is Jim, but most people call me… Jim,” Wilder wisely never played the scene for effect, nor others in the Mel Brooks classic, pulling of gags and the Waco Kid’s fast draw with so tense a complacency he visibly made other actors crack up on camera.
Brooks harnessed Wilder’s acumen in other greats, the actor well-regarded for his lead role in Young Frankenstein and, among this author’s most treasured films and performances, the original (and still the best) version of The Producers. Playing everyman accountant Leo Bloom who breaks out of his mundane life to become a Broadway producer, Wilder, then a little known actor, channelled a universal sense of frustration in his early defining role. Screaming, “I want everything I’ve ever seen in the movies,” he managed to make the incredulous role of the strait-laced accounted turned fraudster believable and himself break into the business he so cherished and to which he dedicated so much of his life.
Among his other classics were several outings with comedian Richie Pryor, including See No Evil, Hear No Evil and the underrated Silver Streak. The Frisco Kid opposite Harrison Ford was a return to the west for Wilder, once again turning a seemingly gimmicky or improbable premise into solid comedy fare. Acting out or upending his projected calm only when it was called for, and necessary, amidst a slew of comic talent Wilder was cautious not to overdo it even in the most farcical of circumstances, grounding what could otherwise have been dismissed or reviled in a relatable, enjoyable universe which any viewer could relish sharing with him.
And that’s why Wilder was great – he wasn’t just the joke, he was in on it too. If you didn’t have a friend you could wordlessly watch and appreciate any one of his films or fantastic moments with he was there, silently sharing your angst and laughter. Wilder’s blank stare was a canvass for any number of iconic flicks, comic gems and meta-hilarity even his passing admirers can cherish and that will be sorely missed.