When you close your eyes and think of Gene Wilder, so many wonderful images come to mind. Him as Frederick Frankenstein (“That’s Fronkensteen). Or sitting in a jail cell with Cleavon Little (“My name is Jim. Most people call me….Jim.”) But childhood impressions last a lifetime so for many of us he will always be Willie Wonka - siting on the banks of the Chocolate River singing “Pure Imagination.”
Childhood impressions lasted a lifetime for Wilder, as well. Born Jerome Silberman, his Jewish father emigrated from Russia at the age of 11 and imported novelties and souvenirs. When Wilder was a young boy his mother had a stroke. The doctor told him to never make is mother angry as it would cause damage to her health… but he could make her laugh. Which explains why Wilder’s nephew said his uncle’s comedy was based in emotion.
We all became the beneficiaries of a child’s effort to make his mother’s journey an easier one. Though his mother died when he was 14, he learned early in life the power of humor. He also learned the sorrow of loss. And again, when you close your eyes and think of Gene Wilder, do you not see a mixture of funny and sad?
Flash forward to the summer of 1971. Paramount releases “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Initial reviews were mixed and the movie didn’t make nearly as much money as the studio had hoped. But children loved it. Certainly this child did. I was ten-years-old, sitting next to my mother at the Canyon Theater. Our tickets cost 25 cents each. Even then the theater was in decline, with generations of chewing gum padding the underbelly of the seats. But that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that Charlie Bucket would somehow get his hands on the 5th golden ticket.
I sat in wonderment! As a pre-pubescent girl, I knew I was supposed to identify with the only female character from the US - the gum-chewing Violet Beauregarde. But I couldn’t. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to be Charlie. I wanted to slurp the Fizzy Lifting Drink and belch my way down back to earth. I wanted to go on that psychedelic tunnel ride! But most of all, I wanted Willy Wonka to like me. You know that warm smile he gives Charlie right before they take off on the Wonkavator? For whatever reason, I wanted that smile.
Flash forward to the summer of 1992. I’m by myself, enjoying a twilight stroll on a winding street in Rome. Coming towards me are two men who I assumed were European since their clothes looked so nice but the closer they approached I could tell they were speaking American. Normally, I would never have made eye contact with a couple of strangers, but the street was beyond narrow and they were speaking my native tongue in a foreign land so I felt a sense of camaraderie. I nodded at the one with wispy hair. He smiled and said “Hello” in a soft voice that I recognized the moment the sound wave hit my ear. Not only did I get a smile from Gene Wilder but his companion also said hello…Peter Boyle. It took me a beat to comprehend the randomness of it all. Who walks past Dr. Frankenstein (That’s Fronkensteen) and his Monster in Rome? And who would ever believe me? An uncontrollable goofy giggle came out of my lips and I must have appeared as innocent as Charlie Bucket because they giggled, too.
That street we were on was winding for a reason: it was actually a circle. Within a few minutes they were approaching again! This time we were 3 lost tourists. I said, “Is this deja vu or what?” And Gene Wilder said, “I knew you were going to say that!” And then it happened. He gave me a warm, enchanting, eye-sparkling smile. The same smile he had given inside the Wonkavator! He knew I was just a goofy fan. I knew he was doing a mitzvah.
Gene Wilder died earlier this week from complications due to Alzheimers. It came as a shock to many because he wanted to keep it quiet. Not from vanity but the man with the gentle voice and wispy hair - who had no children of his own - couldn’t stand the thought of upsetting the children who would point at him and say, “There’s Willy Wonka!” According to Wilder’s nephew, he didn’t want the child’s experience to travel from delight to worry. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Gene Wilder’s humor was born from a need to heal his mother. In the end, he healed so many of us without even knowing it. I don’t know if there’s a place called heaven. But if there is, Gene Wilder holds the golden ticket.