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In the ’70s, Gene Wilder talked writing & acting, movies & stardom, and working with Mel Brooks

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Actor Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder: A hardworking star (1975)

By Al Cohn – The Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio) April 27, 1975

Gene Wilder is thoughtful, articulate and quite sane, a student of acting and writing who never resembles the bizarre character he usually portrays on screen. Well, hardly ever.

Throughout most of the 90-minute interview at his room in Manhattan’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel, Wilder was thoughtful, articulate, etc. The fact that it took place in the bathroom was perfectly understandable: Wilder had to shave. Why was he using shampoo? He had no shaving cream.

It is less clear why he stayed on to talk and to pose for a picture after toweling off. He spoke while perched on the edge of a marble basin, with the interviewer seated… elsewhere. But why quibble over details?

WHAT REALLY matters is that 40-year-old Gene Wilder has reached a level of stardom that no one would have predicted, least of all himself. Having begun his career as a dramatic stage actor with something less than matinee-idol good looks, he anticipated a lifetime of supporting roles.

“Then, in the 1960s, along came a platoon of leading men who succeeded without resembling Rock Hudson. And, most important for Wilder, along came Mel Brooks and roles in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.”

When the interview ended, Wilder frisked the reporter, shook hands and said goodbye.

Gene WIlder caricature cartoon from 1975

While filming Blazing Saddles, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks scripted Young Frankenstein

Q: Are you really Mel Brooks?

WILDER: No, I’m not. Nor is he Gene Wilder. Why do you ask?

Q: The similarity of style and the fact that you’ve worked so often and well together. It was hard to tell who wrote what in “Young Frankenstein” (the two collaborated on the script). How did that actually work out?

WILDER: Very Well. I wrote the first draft, then he came in as a director (and assisted in the rewriting) to satisfy himself that everything he would be dire¢ting would be his rhythms, his kind of physical actions. We worked together on the second draft scene by scene and then the third draft line by line and then the fourth draft word by word.

MORE  Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Find out about this classic movie, plus see memorable scenes & the trailer

“What gave you the idea for “Young Frankenstein?”

WILDER: I had just finished acting in Woody Allen’s film “Everything Always Wanted to ow About Sex,” and I was wondering what I would do next. I was vacationing in the country and in a large yellow pad and wrote the words “Young Frankenstein” at the top. For the next hour or two, I imagined what might happen to me if in the 1970s I were left the inheritance of my great grandfather, the original Dr. Frankenstein.

I put it away. Then six months later, my agent suggested a picture with me, Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman, since he happened to represent all of us. Later on, it occurred to me that they would be perfect for my story. My agent said to send it out (to Hollywood) right away.

Q: How did Brooks get involved?

WILDER: My agent said, “Maybe we could get Mel to direct it.” I said, “You’re talking through your hat because he won’t direct anything he didn’t write -and conceive, and I know him too well to ask him for favors like that.” I sent the story off to my agent and got a call from Mel two days later. He said, “What are you getting me into?”

I said, “Nothing that you don’t want to get into.” He said, “Well, they’re giving me a story here and putting a lot of pressure…” I said he should do whatever he wants. About a day after that I got a call saying it was a deal.

Vintage PR photo of Gene Wilder from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Q: How did he react to the script?

WILDER: After it was accepted, he was a little shocked because he hadn’t written anything yet. He said, “I suppose you think it’s pretty good that you wrote a script and they accepted it.” I said, “Yeah, I think it’s pretty good.” He said, ‘Well, just listen to me, Mr. Hotshot, it isn’t bad, but now the work begins. Because the difference between a first draft and a shooting script is a long road.” So while were making “Blazing Saddles,” we worked on the second draft of “Young Frankenstein.”

Q: How did you complement each other?

WILDER: He said, “Your job is to make me less broad. My job is to make you less subtle.” By the third draft, we argued, lovingly but more intensely because it was getting closer to the shooting. If I hung on for 45 minutes after he badgered and beat and slapped and kicked and whipped and socked everything, and I said Mel, you’re wrong, it has to be, he would immediately stop and say, “Okay, I understand, you’re right.” And I’d say, “What did you put me through all this for?”

And he’d say, “Because if you held on after that, it must be right. Because I’m -not that sure. But I know that if you give it up, you’re not sure either.” And I was the same way with him. If we both held on, we had kind of an automatic respect. Whoever held the ~ longest, the other would tend to give in. By the fourth draft, we were pretty much going down the same path.

Q: Mel Brooks once said, “Gene Wilder is my stock company. I wish I could use him in every picture.” Referring to you as “the vehicle for my passion,” he said: “When God saw Gene’ Wilder, He said that is prey. And we’ll put him on Earth and everybody will chase him and have some fun.” How do you react to that?

WILDER (laughing): It’s more true than you can possibly imagine with him. I don’t know how much God had to do with it, but it turned out that two very different people somehow managed — a Stanislavski- trained actor has joined up with a Jewish comic from the Borscht belt, and for some strange reason it’s worked out extraordinarily well.
The reason is that I can do realistically anything that he dreams up.

Willy Wonka Gene Wilder - Candy room

I turned down the part in “Blazing Saddles” at first because I didn’t think it was right for me. And I was all set to go to London to shoot “The Little Prince.” But one actor he had hired begged off and a replacement took ill, so Mel called me and said, “It’s a sign from God. Can you come out, please, and help me?” Stanley Donen re-arranged the schedule in London so I could do it.

Q: So you became his good-luck charm.

WILDER: Well, from that point on, he’s been a little bit shaky about whether to start a project that I’m not in at the beginning. He thinks God will catch up with him later. Then, of course, “Blazing Saddles” was his first enormous movie success.

“The Producers” was a great success as far as prestige, reviews and cult worldwide acceptance, but not at the box office. Mel has never seen a penny from “The Producers,” although everyone in the world has seen it. But “Blazing Saddles,” although it was originally thought that perhaps it would get its money back, became a gigantic success.

Young Frankenstein” opened at a time when “Blazing Saddles” has reached astronomic proportions, and it’s hard to believe but “Young Frankenstein” is doing something like 64% better than “Blazing Saddles.”

So all of a sudden, we’ve become like the dynamic duo, so he thinks I’ve grown big enough now so that I can’t just be a member in the stock company (an informal group of Brooks performers that also. includes Madeline Kahn and several others) — which is not altogether true, because I would, as long as I felt the part was right.

Actor Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein movie

Q: At one point you said you would like to have been Louis Jourdan. Do you still feel that way?

WILDER: Cross out Louis Jourdan and put in Errol Flynn. Well, don’t cross out Louis Jourdan — I actually wanted to be one of several people. Errol Flynn as Robin Hood or Captain Blood; or Tyrone Power — I also wanted to be Paul Muni.

Q: Specifically, how did Dustin Hoffman and Alan Arkin pave the way for your success, as you once remarked?

WILDER: Hoffman, Arkin and Gene Wilder are not leading men. They are character actors who play leading roles. But until about eight or nine years ago, they wouldn’t give a character man a leading role. Not when there is a romantic interest, anyway.

Then “The Graduate” came along with a very unconventional leading man, yet the girls go for him. And Alan came out in “The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!” He became a big star. Those faces were not Clark Gable. I was even less likely looking than the other two. But after the pictures that Alan and Dustin did, the people who were putting up money for pictures realized that people would pay to see someone if he’s good, if he’s believable. That the audience could say, “That’s a real person.” Not an eight-by-10 glossy.

Q: With a background of serious acting, including study at the Old Vic Theater school in England and Actors Studio, how did you end up in comedy?

WILDER: When I was 13, I wanted to be a comedian. When I was 15, I saw Lee J. Cobb in “Death of a Salesman” and I wanted to be a serious actor. When I was in my early 20s and came to New York (from the Midwest, where he was born and brought up) to act, comedy was always the key that opened up the doors for me.

Then, later on, I realized that it wasn’t that I was shutting out the serious in favor of the comic, it was that I was gradually heading toward a house way down the road that didn’t even know existed — very, very serious comic acting.

Anyone who thinks that a really good comedy is not as serious as any drama, is not dumb, but a little bit ignorant about the work that goes into it.

Willy Wonka and Charlie Bucket 1971

Gene Wilder: Another normal actor (1971)

Panama City News Herald (Florida) – August 1, 1971

Actor Gene Wilder, 36, has startling green eyes and a thatch of red hair, and — he says — peace of mind. But does he?

Right now, he’s starring as the candymaker in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” But Gene well remembers being sent to military school in Hollywood, where he was “the only Jew in school, and was either beaten up or insulted every day.”

He also says of his childhood: “I grew up constantly repressed because my mother was ill, and I was never allowed to scream or vent my anger openly. While hostility boiled inside me, I had to put on a normal, complacent front until I was a conflict of emotions.”

After seven years of analysis, Wilder says he is happy with both his career and his new wife, Mary Joe, whom he married in 1967. (His first marriage ended in divorce.)

Now he is looking for “some corner of this world where love prevails and where the world can’t catch up with me for 45 years — when I expect to be dead.”


More with Gene Wilder:

>> ‘Blazing Saddles’ is typical Mel Brooks (1974)

>> Young Frankenstein: A falling down funny film (1975)

>> Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: Find out about this classic movie, plus see memorable scenes & the trailer

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