Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
Sunday night lost a comic genius and great human being. Gene Wilder passed away with his family surrounding him at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. While many remember him most for his role as the quirky candy genius Willy Wonka, I will always remember him most for his roles in Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers. Of course I will never forget him in Stir Crazy or The Silver Streak, but for me it was his roles in the Mel Brooks comedies that I will never forget.
The first time I saw him was in The Producers where he played the neurotic accountant Leo Blum who helped Max Bialystok (Zero Mostel) figure out that he could make more money producing a Broadway flop than a hit. I saw that film on television when I was about 12 years old, well before I ever saw him in Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein, and I never forgot him. Then in 1974 I was able to convince the box office attendants and ushers that I was old enough to be admitted to the latter two films. Actually, it wasn’t that hard back then to fake it, no one ever asked for I.D., and I’m sure that some of them were stoned before they even showed up for work but I digress…
There are few people who could play neurotic people with the comic sensitivity that Gene Wilder did, the man was brilliant. The next film that I saw him appear was Brooks’s classic Western spoof, Blazing Saddles where he played the washed up alcoholic gunfighter, the Waco Kid, whose name was Jim, though most people called him Jim. Wilder was a last minute replacement for Gig Young who actually did have an alcohol problem and collapsed on set forcing Brooks to shut down production for a day and bring Gene Wilder in relief. Wilder was perfect for the role and complimented Clevon Little who play the Black sheriff Bart to a tee. I think my favorite scene is where Sheriff Bart wishes a little old lady a “good day” and is told by her “up yours nigger.” Almost inconsolable Bart comes back to the office where the Waco Kid gives him some great advice.
Then there was Young Frankenstein where Wilder played the grandson of the original Dr. Frankenstein opposite Marty Feldman, Terri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle. This was followed by Willy Wonka and so many others. I loved Wilder when he was paired with Richard Pryor as well.
I could go on and on about Gene Wilder, by I will stop for now. He and so many of his fellow cast members from these films are gone. Zero Mostel, Kenneth Mars, Clevon Little, Madeline Kahn, Harvey Korman, Richard Pryor, Alex Karras, and Peter Boyle to name but a few. He never announced that he was suffering from Alzheimer’s because he didn’t want to upset kids who saw him and said “look there’s Willy Wonka.” He was a joyful spirit who loved life, and now joins the love of his life, the late Gilda Radner, and now he goes into that final sunset.