Gene Wilder: Remembering the wild ride

Gene Wilder_Willow Yang_Senior Staff
Willow Yang/Senior Staff

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Once again, 2016 has lost an artist talented in every sense of the word. Gene Wilder was a comedic genius. From “Blazing Saddles” to “Young Frankenstein” to his Oscar-nominated role in “The Producers,” Wilder was as perfectly timed hitting all the comedic notes as Beethoven was the musical ones. So when news broke that the icon had passed at 83, many of us at The Daily Californian who grew up watching Gene Wilder and his on-screen neurotic charm had fond reflections on his legacy.

Seemingly without fail, “Young Frankenstein” has played on television every single year on my birthday. I don’t know whether Oct. 18 was a special day for Mel Brooks. But — because of Gene Wilder’s zany, wild-eyed, hilarious portrait of a god complex gone wrong — it has always been a little more special to me.

I grew up with Gene Wilder. First, he was my Willy Wonka. (Let me set the record straight: Johnny Depp can’t hold a candle to Wilder’s wizard.) It was a big deal when my parents (with great caution and trepidation — and hands probably glued to the stop button on the remote) allowed me to watch “Blazing Saddles” for the first time. Though the film’s former scandalousness has in large part died away, “Blazing Saddles” — like “Young Frankenstein” — still feels a lot to me like a stepping stone through the river of my childhood.

I feel Gene Wilder’s death acutely: Without relying too heavily upon cliché, it feels like a part of my childhood has died. For years, Gene Wilder — curly hair fanned out like a halo over his white laboratory gear, framing those haunted and haunting blue eyes — has played the clown at my birthday parties. I imagine this next October will feel quite different, knowing that the tortured, hilarious scientist Dr. Frankenstein won’t be there to celebrate.

— Sarah Coduto 

Willy Wonka’s eyes stab into the soul of the cutest grandfather in the world as he admonishes the shit out of him, growing redder and redder in the face.

Surrounded by flashing lights, sparks and fire, Dr. Frankenstein’s eyes ascend to the night sky and he cries out in a rage for his creature to be brought to life.

And my eyes are transfixed on the face and the golden-brown locks that surround it. I laugh. I feel fear. And I believe every second of it.

Gene Wilder’s eclectic and brilliant resume delves into all genres and has him playing all sorts of characters. But in bringing the absurd to bare, Wilder had no equal.

In an age when awkward dominates onscreen funny, the happenings of Gene Wilder’s eyes might not seem exceptional. Shows such as “The Office,” “30 Rock” and “Louie” gain their strength from subtle facial expressions and punchlines often take the form of a confused or slightly alarmed head nod.

While Wilder by no means pioneered this form of humor, he was one of its early masters.

In “Young Frankenstein,” he offers to help Igor with his hump and Igor calmly responds, “What hump?” Wilder pauses, looks at the hump again, seemingly to ensure he saw it right the first time, then looks at Igor. He packs in pages of confusion and discomfort in a one-second gaze. He does what Jim Halpert does every episode, but he does it better and precedes Jim by 35 years. And in that moment of silent discomfort, a laugh escapes me almost by accident.

It’s these moments of intense and personal humanity, Wilder legitimizes the absurd. He takes a character who’s lived as a recluse in a chocolate factory surrounded only by orange employees, and he creates something relatable.

And so while Wilder’s departure from this earth should be mourned by all, I’ll be mostly missing his eyes — and how they emphasized the human, even from within the absurd. 

— Karim Doumar

My mom wasn’t quite four when “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was released into theaters. The Roald Dahl book (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) the film is based on was her favorite growing up, and the film created a perfect, tear-jerking iteration of the book she read as a kid. When I graduated from high school, she gave me the hardcover copy she’s had since she was in fifth grade. I keep it at home, safe on my bookshelf.

Maybe it sounds odd, but my connection to Gene Wilder is a connection to my mom. She of course showed me “Wonka,” but “Young Frankenstein” is the one I remember most. It eventually led me to the other Mel Brooks films and down an endless rabbit hole of comedy that I evidently can’t seem to find my way out of.

We quoted “Young Frankenstein” regularly in my house growing up. I never really understood any of the jokes, they were just embedded in my head — inside jokes that only my parents fully grasped. Mentions of the word “abnormal” would launch into recitations of the “Abby Normal” exchange between Frankenstein and Igor. I distinctly remember playing a family game of charades and my mom, exasperated by not getting the clue, yelled “SED-A-GIVE!” And I kid you not, I walk heel-to-toe purely because the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number had such an impact on me as a child.

It was my mom who informed me of Gene Wilder’s passing. I woke in the middle of a nap to see a text that said “Willy Wonka/Dr. ‘Fronkensteen’” had passed. Self concern intact, I ached that a joyous piece of my childhood had been lost or, at the very least, grown a bit dimmer. Then I realized that loss was felt by mom as well but to an amplified degree. Wilder was not only an integral part of her own childhood but also her three children’s. She loved his films and performances on her own, then watched her kids grow to love them.

Gene Wilder, as he did for countless others, taught me to laugh when I was a kid. I always thought childhood films would maintain their innocence in my mind. Now I realize Gene Wilder is teaching me to grow up. Now I understand the raunchy jokes shared between him and Madeline Kahn. Now I cry every time I listen to “Pure Imagination.” And now I understand, more than ever, what his films mean to the one who first played them for me.

— Danielle Gutierrez 

Contact the Daily Cal Arts Staff at [email protected].