Gene Wilder Dies From Complications Of Alzheimer's At Age 83

Aug 30, 2016
Originally published on August 30, 2016 7:07 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The comedian Gene Wilder died yesterday of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 83 years old. Wilder often played neurotic, charming characters in the big-screen comedies he starred in, such as "The Producers" and of course "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory." Bob Mondello has this appreciation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: His characters wanted to be calm, but to the great delight of audiences, they rarely succeeded. On screen, Gene Wilder could often be summed up as an accident waiting to happen, that frizzy, flyaway hair, the eyes darting this way and that and then something would set him off, Zero Mostel, say, in the movie that made Wilder a star, "The Producers."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")

GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) I'm hysterical. I'm having hysterics. I'm hysterical. I can't stop when I get like this. I can't stop. I'm hysterical.

MONDELLO: Mostel douses him with a glass of water.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")

WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) I'm wet. I'm wet. I'm hysterical and I'm wet.

MONDELLO: So Mostel slaps him.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")

WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) I'm in pain and I'm wet and I'm still hysterical.

MONDELLO: Mel Brooks may have written that bit, but Gene Wilder made you believe it. He often said that his job as an actor wasn't to make something funny but to make it real. Just months earlier, in fact, he'd made a hysteric seem considerably less funny in his film debut as a terrified undertaker in "Bonnie And Clyde." And neurotics soon became his stock-in-trade, whether he was playing the weird title character in "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory..."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")

WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) We have to get on. We have to get on. We have so much time and so little to do. Strike that. Reverse it.

MONDELLO: ...Or a bit part as a man who falls in love with a sheep in Woody Allen's "Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex * But Were Afraid To Ask."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX * BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK")

WILDER: (As Doctor Ross) I was not fondling my lambswool sweater. What would I do something like that for?

MONDELLO: But it was with Mel Brooks that Wilder really took flight, most memorably perhaps in "Young Frankenstein." Wilder came up with the idea. He and Brooks co-wrote it, and in a cast that included Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman, Wilder proved he could have been a first-rate vaudeville comic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")

MARTY FELDMAN: (As Igor) Dr. Frankenstein.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Fronkensteen (ph).

FELDMAN: (As Igor) You're putting put me on.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No, it's pronounced Fronkensteen.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Do you also say Froaderick (ph)?

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No, Frederick.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) Well, why isn't it Froaderick Fronkensteen?

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) It isn't. It's Frederick Fronkensteen.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) I see.

WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) You must be Igor.

FELDMAN: (As Igor) No, it's pronounced eye-gore (ph).

MONDELLO: He went on to write several other movie scripts - "The Woman In Red," "The World's Greatest Lover," "The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother." And he also formed a memorable partnership with Richard Pryor, who, in movies like "Stir Crazy" and "Silver Streak," seemed to bring out the wilder side of Wilder.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SILVER STREAK")

WILDER: (As George) I can't pass for black.

RICHARD PRYOR: (As Grover) Who are you telling? I didn't say I was going to make you black. I said I was going to get you on the train. Now we got to make them cops think you black.

WILDER: (As George) It'll never work.

PRYOR: (As Grover) What? Are you afraid it won't come off?

WILDER: (As George) Oh, that's a good joke.

MONDELLO: Another Gene Wilder partner, comedian Gilda Radner, who co-starred with him in the film "Hanky Panky," became his third wife. And if their marriage was not always easy in his telling, it was sustaining. After her death from cancer in 1989, he worked less frequently, spending time on a novel and a TV show that didn't click, dealing with his own cancer, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and thinking about his craft. In 2005, NPR's Susan Stamberg asked him what had inspired him to go into it - not the great comics it turns out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WILDER: I'm not very funny in real life. I used to want to be a comedian when I was 13, 14, 15, till I saw "Death Of A Salesman" with Lee J. Cobb and Mildred Dunnock. And it was so real that I, you know, I thought it was actually happening in front of me, not as a stage play but that those people were actually going through what they were doing. And that's when I decided - I said I don't want to be a comedian. I want to be an actor, maybe a comic actor but a real actor.

MONDELLO: Gene Wilder was a real actor, a real comic actor. I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LITTLE PRINCE")

WILDER: (As The Fox, singing) Then we'll jump miles at a time... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.