Wilder Man

Before Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, there were Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder, who originated the roles of Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks's 1968 film The Producers. In the pre-cable and pre-streaming era, certain local TV stations (like Channel 9 in New York, for one) made the movie a Friday night ritual of sorts; it was shown with sufficient regularity to familiarize viewers with the edgy hysteria the method-trained Wilder would make his trademark over a career that began with a small role in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde. Watch the scene in which Wilder's Bloom endures the interrogation of Mostel's Bialystock in the course of a review of the business ledgers: the twitchy accountant who initially fears being flattened like Poppea by Nero grows increasingly intrigued by the possibility of financial payoff in mounting a Broadway flop. It's morally unconscionable, of course, but as a hypothetical accounting exercise it fascinates, and if done just the right way....

Who could pull the scene off in just the way he did? Maybe no one. Wilder, who died of complications from Alzheimer's on Monday, received an Oscar nomination for his role as Bloom, yet that might not have been his best performance.

In the Brooks-directed Young Frankenstein (which he and Brooks co-wrote), Wilder perfects his mastery in exhibiting the transition from nervous hesitancy to frantic, helpless submission. If moral calculations are made on a slope, Wilder reminds us of the incline's natural slipperiness, exacerbated when the hero's tragic flaw is the wish to please. There's little in film that's funnier than his scheme to humanize Peter Boyle's monster by casting him in a soft-shoe duet to "Puttin' on the Ritz." The desire to do right might be there, but so is the awareness, evident in Wilder's desperation as the routine goes wrong, that good intentions alone may not cut it.

Other performances could make for confusing viewing, as in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. For better or worse, this is probably more of a generational touchstone than the Brooks movies, and for those who recall Wilder's Wonka introducing himself to an expectant crowd with a weirdly ominous somersault, or seeming to revel in the gruesome eliminations of young contest winners, or turning his back on the movie's hero for what seems a minor transgression, these moments can still summon old childhood anxieties. Here was Wilder as manipulative, mercurial parent figure -- something perhaps not too far beneath the surface of the Roald Dahl source material -- but maybe more unsettling in the 1970s context of rising divorce rates and fragmenting families. It's a strange piece of work, no less so for Wilder's eerie warbling of the lyrics: "Come with me and you'll be/in a world of pure imagination/Take a look and you'll see/into your imagination."

Generally less remembered is Wilder as Skip Donahue in 1980’s Sidney Poitier-directed Stir Crazy, which reunited him with Richard Pryor from Silver Streak, and which I note mainly for the fact that it was the first R-rated movie I successfully sneaked into. But it was around this time it dawned on me that Wilder wasn't just frenetically funny; gentleness and quietude often limned his performances too: see especially the drunken, wistful gunslinger Jim, the Waco Kid of Blazing Saddles. It's tempting, of course, to project such onscreen qualities onto the offscreen person. After Gilda Radner died from ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder was forthcoming about both the imperfection and the strength of their marriage. He would soon help found, and continue to support, an ovarian cancer research center in her name in Los Angeles, as well as Gilda's Club, a network of support centers for women with cancer.

I think of these and additional endeavors -- novels, memoirs, articles -- in knowing that the "milder Wilder" (in the formulation of Lawrence Downes at the New York Times) left a mark too. In an interview with The Tablet in 2005, Wilder acknowledged that he felt "very Jewish" though didn't believe "in anything to do with the Jewish religion." Instead, he declared, his religion was this: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito.”

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Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

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