Remembering Gene Wilder (2023) | Transcript

A special tribute documentary honoring Gene Wilder's life and career.
Remembering Gene Wilder

Remembering Gene Wilder (2023)
Genre: Documentary
Director: Ron Frank
Stars: Gene Wilder, Mel Brooks, Harry Connick Jr., Ben Mankiewicz, Peter Ostrum, Carol Kane, Rain Pryor, Richard Pryor, Zero Mostel, Gilda Radner

This loving tribute to Gene Wilder celebrates his life and legacy as the comic genius behind an extraordinary string of film roles, from his first collaboration with Mel Brooks in The Producers, to the enigmatic title role in the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to his inspired on-screen partnership with Richard Pryor in movies like Silver Streak.

* * *

[“Pure Imagination” playing]

[Willy Wonka] ♪ Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination ♪

[soft music]

[man] He was a combination of innocence and danger.


You didn’t know what Gene Wilder was gonna do.

[energetic music]

[Carol Kane] He was an actor who had an ability…

[laughing maniacally]

…to be funny.




[Mel Brooks] He’s naive, he’s innocent.


[Mel Brooks] He’s sweet, simple, and honest.

But when he got excited, he was a volcano.



[woman] He had a unique ability to find humor.

I never thought it could be like this.

[woman] In anything.

[sheep bleats]

I’m wet!

[Mel Brooks] You’ll never find another Gene Wilder.

[Gene Wilder] I didn’t think Jerry Silberman had the right ring to it.

I wanted to be… Wilder.

[bright music]

[soft, bright music]

Suppose you’re walking out of the Plaza Hotel in New York City on a warm spring day.

You want to go directly across the street to Fifth Avenue, but the Plaza fountain is directly in your path.

You can get to Fifth Avenue by walking around the fountain on the path to your left, or by taking the path to your right.

I believe that whichever choice you make could change your life.

I’m sure everyone has had these mysterious brushes with irony, perhaps referring to them years later as “almost fate.”

January, 1963.

Jerome Robbins was going to direct Bertolt Brecht’s play Mother Courage on Broadway with Anne Bancroft as the star.

Fate must be working its magic, because if he hadn’t miscast me in Mother Courage, I wouldn’t have met Anne Bancroft.

If I hadn’t met Anne Bancroft, I wouldn’t have met Mel Brooks.

If I hadn’t met Mel Brooks, I would probably be a patient in some neuropsychiatric hospital looking through the bars of a physical therapy window as I made wallets.

[dramatic music]

[soft, bright music]

We opened previews at the Martin Beck Theatre to a packed house.

Anne Bancroft’s boyfriend came to pick her up each night after the show.

The boyfriend’s name was Mel Brooks.

[Mel Brooks] We were heavily engaged

and heavily in love.

{\an8}She kept telling me about this weird, strange,

very talented guy in the cast…

[soft music]

…who had innocence, blessed with innocence,

and she knew that I was writing a rough draft of…

then it was called Springtime for Hitler.

Later I changed it to The Producers.

And she knew that I had this character, Leo Bloom,

and she said, “I think he’s Leo Bloom on the hoof,

he’s right there, he’s…

He’s naive, he’s innocent.”

So I saw the show,

and I kept watching it every night,

and I agreed with her and I said,

“That’s my Leo Bloom.”

I want to meet him.

I met him backstage at the Martin Beck Theatre.

[Gene Wilder] When I met Mel for the first time,

he was wearing a black pea jacket,

it was the kind made famous by the Merchant Marines.

So he said, “That’s a pea coat.”

And I… you know, and…

the Borscht Belt comic in me said,

“No, no, that’s too vulgar.

I call it a urine coat.”

And he really grabbed his belly

and really laughed.

I immediately fell in love with him.

You get a terrific real laugh out of somebody.

And Gene was a great laugher.

[soft music]

[Gene Wilder] Despite Anne’s Academy Award that year

for The Miracle Worker,

Mother Courage closed after three months.

[boat horn blares]

[curious music]

Mel asked if I would like to spend a weekend

with him and Anne on Fire Island.

[Mel Brooks] And I invited him out

to our house on the beach for a weekend.

[seagull squawks]

[Gene Wilder] After dinner, Mel asked Anne and me to sit down,

and then he began reading the first three scenes

of Springtime for Hitler

almost verbatim as they eventually appeared on screen.

[Mel Brooks] Gee, you could make more money…

…with a flop than he could with a hit.

You keep saying that, but you don’t tell me how?

How can a producer make more money with a flop

than he could with a hit?

I read 37 pages, that’s all I had,

introducing Leo Bloom fully.

But you still look angry.


How’s this?


That’s good.

That’s very nice.

I thought I saw a little tear run down his…

“And you want me to play that?”

I said, “Yes, I want you to play

that simple, beautiful, innocent,

good-natured accountant.”

[soft music]

[waves crashing]

[Gene Wilder] I loved it.

I said yes.

I wondered, “How can a few words

change your life?”

[interviewer] You originally were Jerry Silberman.

Yes, and I think there’s…

somewhere inside he’s still there lurking around.

[soft music]

I used to be Jerry Silberman

from Milwaukee.

[energetic music]

When I was eight years old,

my mother had her first heart attack.

[somber music]

After my father brought her home from the hospital,

her heart specialist came to see how she was doing.

He grabbed my right arm and whispered in my ear,

“Don’t ever argue with your mother.

You might kill her.

Try to make her laugh.”

If he hadn’t said those two sentences,

I might have gone into used car salesman

or something like that.

Or a concert violinist or perhaps a painter.

[soft music]

[Rochelle] Well, Aunt Jeanne was always ill,

and Jerry just adored her.

{\an8}He did try to be funny, he tried to amuse her,

{\an8}he tried to do things to make her laugh.

[Gene Wilder] I had thought often about being a comedian.

Mostly because I had seen Danny Kaye in Up in Arms.

[scat singing]

Danny Kaye was, I think, very special to him.

[Gene Wilder] And then Jerry Lewis on television.

[Jerry Lewis] Let’s keep it quiet, buddy.

[Gene Wilder] And then for me the king of them all,

was Sid Caesar on Your Show of Shows.

I did Jewish accents and German accents.

And I did make my mother laugh.

Every once in a while,

if I was a little too successful,

she’d run into the bathroom squealing,

“Oh, Jerry, now look what you’ve made me do!”

[door slams]

[Rochelle] She had a wonderful sense of humor.

I think Gene probably got some of it from her.

[overlapping chatter]

[Gene Wilder] And then when I started acting…

[overlapping chatter]

…she always thought that I was good,

and that gave me the confidence to go on.

Sorry, sir.

[soft music]

[Rochelle] I think he loved the stage best of all.

He just belonged there.

[bright music]

[Gene Wilder] I was asked to take over Alan Arkin’s role

in Luv on Broadway.

It had now been three years

since I’d heard from Mel Brooks.

I’d given up hopes of being Leo Bloom

in Springtime for Hitler.

I was taking off my makeup one day

when someone knocked on my dressing room door.


I opened the door…

[door opens]

…and there was Mel.

Mel said, “You don’t think I forgot, do you?”

Then he introduced me to the tall gentleman with him,

Sidney Glazier,

who was going to produce Springtime for Hitler.

[Mel Brooks] I met Sidney Glazier,

I gave him my script.

He said, “I don’t wanna read it.

Read it to me.”

And I began reading,

and he was eating a big tuna fish sandwich

and a huge cup of coffee.

And he’d sip the coffee, and he’d eat,

and he’d listen.

And every once in a while he’d smile.

Once in a while he’d laugh a little bit.

And when I got to the blue blanket scene…

My blanket, my blue blanket,

give me my blue blanket!

[speaking gibberish]

He spit the coffee all over the office

and he said, “We gotta make this movie.”

[Gene Wilder] Mel started talking as if we were

just continuing a conversation from yesterday.

“Now, listen, you know I love you,

but Zero Mostel is gonna play Bialystock,

and I can’t just spring you on him

because he’s got approval of anyone who plays Leo.

So you gotta do a reading with him

just so he can see for himself how good you are.

[traffic humming]

The morning of the reading, I was very nervous.

If I don’t get this part,

I’ll just be a good featured,

maybe supporting actor for the rest of my life.

[door opens]

Mel opened the door and gave me a hug.

I could see Zero Mostel in the background.

And then Mel pulled me into the office.

This huge round fantasy of a man

came waltzing towards me.

My heart was pounding so loud

I thought he’d hear it.

Zero grabbed Gene, bent him over,

and kissed him on the lips fully.

And then turned to me and said, “This is my Bloom.”

[Gene Wilder] All nervousness floated away.

I think Zero did it for that reason.

I gave a good reading

and was cast in Springtime for Hitler.

[soft music]

[crewmember] Take one!

[clapperboard claps]

[Gene Wilder] Filming on Springtime for Hitler

was to begin in May,

but in the meantime,

I was offered a small part

in a movie called Bonnie and Clyde

starring Warren Beatty and directed by Arthur Penn.

The company was already filming in Texas.

I arrived in Dallas and I went to the set.

Arthur Penn introduced me to the pretty young woman

who would be playing my fiancée.

Her name was Evans Evans.

We said hello and shook hands.

The camera started rolling.

[indistinct speaking]

The first scene started with Evans and me

kissing on her porch.

A little strange to start kissing someone

you just met two minutes earlier,

but it was fun.

Say, isn’t that your car, Eugene?

That’s my car.

Arthur said, “Cut. Very good.”

And that was my introduction to movie acting.

Later, I’m riding in the back of a car

with the Barrow gang.

Maybe y’all oughta join up with us?


Oh, boy.

It sure would be a surprise to hear that back home.

Hey, what do you do anyhow?

I’m an undertaker.

Get them out of here.

[Gene Wilder] When filming was over,

Arthur Penn told me that he had never envisioned

the part being played the way I did it.

He never imagined it being funny.

[bright music]

Zero Mostel had a car and driver assigned to him

when filming for Springtime for Hitler began.

He would pick me up each morning

in that we could travel to work together.

[indistinct chatter]

[Mel Brooks] It was a marriage made in heaven.

They were just made for each other.

I’m an honest man, you don’t understand.

No, Bloom, you don’t understand!

This is fate, this is destiny,

this is kismet!

There’s no avoiding it!

[Mel Brooks] It was the first movie I ever directed.

A toast.

[Mel Brooks] It was like

getting into a big canoe and gliding down the river.

That’s how easy they made it for me.

I’m happy!


[Mel Brooks] And they did… sometimes they ad-libbed stuff

that was a lot better than stuff I had written.

But I was in heaven.

[soft music]

[Gene Wilder] Joe Levine,

the man who put up half the budget

and was going to distribute the film

went to a screening room with Mel

and saw the first 11 minutes of the dailies.

[Mel Brooks] Joe Levine saw the dailies

on the third day with Bialystock and Bloom,

the one in the hallway where he’s frightened

and where he’s just superb.

Speak to me, speak!

Why don’t you speak?

I’m scared, can’t talk.

[Mel Brooks] He said, “He’s cute, he has curly hair,

but I need a leading man.

He’s… he’s a… a bit of a wimp.

I’ll give you another $10,000.

Get somebody who looks like a leading man.”

I said, “I don’t want a leading man!

I want the opposite of a leading man.

I want somebody who’s afraid of the world,

who retreats instead of attacks like Bialystock.”

He said, “Get another guy to play Leo Bloom.”

I said, and this is the first time I said it,

and at every single movie

I said to the head of the studio,

“Yeah, you’re right, you got it.”

And never, ever did what they wanted me to do.

[soft, quirky music]

I started with Joe Levine.

Gene Wilder is out!

[door slams]

You’ll see.

Next week I’ll have somebody else.

He left the screening room happy.

[Gene Wilder] We were about to rehearse

my big hysterical scene.

I was anxious to see how Zero and I would play it together.

Mel never said “action” like every other director.

Mel said, “Go.”


And I gave it my all.

You miserable, cowardly, wretched little caterpillar.

You would normally be a little afraid of Bialystock,

who was a force, who’s a living force.

He was just a ton of flesh, a crescendo of humanity.


[Leo Bloom] You’re gonna jump on me.


You’re gonna jump on me,

I know you’re gonna jump on me!

[Gene Wilder] This giant hulk of a man

is now making all these strange gestures

and might possibly pounce on me.

Please don’t jump on me!

I’m not gonna jump!


[indistinct shouting]

Will you get a hold of yourself?

Don’t touch me, don’t touch me!

He could scare you.

And, uh, he scared Gene, and Gene was timid.

[Ben Mankiewicz] I think what connects Leo Bloom

to me and to the audience is fear.

I’m hysterical!

[Ben Mankiewicz] Just the fear

that he goes through life carrying.

What comes across

{\an8}is this intense humanity, right,

{\an8}this authenticity

that Gene brings out of Leo Bloom.

[bright music]

[Gene Wilder] When the scene was over,

the whole crew laughed and applauded.

I was worn out and a little hoarse,

but the scene went very well.

[Mel Brooks] Joe Levine, who said I had to take out Gene,

we kept him away from the dailies so he never knew

that Gene would come in every day and work it.

Finally, I said, “He’s done half the picture.

It would cost us too much money to replace him.”

“Yeah, yeah, all right.”

[soft music]

[Gene Wilder] We were at the Lincoln Center fountain

on the last day of filming,

waiting for the sun to go down.

I said to the guy running the fountain at…

at Lincoln Center, I said,

I said, “It goes up to 12 or 15 feet.

Can you get it up to 20?”

He says, “I can get it up to 50.”

I said, “Go for broke.”

[Gene Wilder] When the sun finally went down,

the cameras started rolling.

[Leo Bloom] I’ll do it!

[fountain splashes]

[Gene Wilder] And the fountain was turned on,

in the film and in my life.

[uplifting music]

And we finished the movie right on that… on that night.

That was a miraculous moment.

[Gene Wilder] I was sad that the film was ending,

of course, but also very happy.

And I knew that I’d been part of a unique film,

working with the two most unusual people

I had ever met.

The outrageousness,

the complete audacity of Zero and Mel

remains with me.

[grand music]

[soft music]

[Terry Wogan] The movie that really launched you, as it were,

that was a character that held in the anger, too,

and that suddenly would burst out into manic…


Was that you?

Yes, that was me.

It was a part of me.

[soft music]

When my mother was suffering,

the doctor set off something terrible in me,

because “don’t ever argue with your mother”

inhibited me from getting angry with anyone

and holding it all in, and that’s poison.

[Ben Mankiewicz] No child should ever be told,

“Don’t argue with your mother, you might kill her.”

That is an unbelievably heavy burden to carry.

[Gene Wilder] I felt a rage

that I didn’t or couldn’t express,

except through acting.

He started acting in high school plays.

And then Gene was with the Milwaukee Players.

He was always the lead.

We’d go to rehearsals together.

And he just came and got me so… take me with him.

[Gene Wilder] Being on stage was a thing

that saved me from myself.

When I was in a play, I was safe.

[soft, bright music]

I was drafted into the Army on September 10th, 1956.

At the end of basic training,

I was assigned to the medical corps

at the neuropsychiatric hospital

in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

Patients were all going through psychotic phases.

I saw their behavior.

I thought that would be the closest to acting

that would help me later on.

Rowers, keep on rowing!

[Gene Wilder] I wasn’t wrong.

And they’re certainly not showing

any signs that they are slowing!


{\an8}It’s really tough for me to pick my favorite Gene Wilder film

{\an8}because so many of them were so great.

[soft music]

But I have to say that Willy Wonka’s my favorite

because what Gene was able to do on camera.

That was so attractive.

That was so charismatic and becoming.

I’m so glad you could come.

This is going to be such an exciting day.

I hope you enjoy it.

I think you will.

And now would you please show me your golden tickets?

Charlie Bucket.

Well, well, Charlie Bucket.

I read all about you in the papers.

I’m so happy for you.

[Peter Ostrum] I was in fourth grade

{\an8}in Shaker Heights, Ohio,

{\an8}and the Cleveland Playhouse

{\an8}has a very active children’s theater.

It’s got a nice résumé.

Joel Grey came from the Cleveland Playhouse.

Margaret Hamilton, Wicked Witch of the West.

It was a good place to learn,

good place to start for me.

When they were casting Willy Wonka,

that was one of the theaters

that they called.

So my name was given to them.

They had me do a screen test.

I was nobody.

I didn’t have a large résumé.

This was just like a lark.

It was fun.

If I didn’t get the part,

there was… there weren’t any hard feelings, you know?

Months later, Mel Stuart, the director,

finally called and talked to my mother and said,

“Hey, you got the role.”

I’m gonna be Charlie.

“And you need to be in Munich in like 10 days.”

{\an8}Casting was very important in the…

{\an8}but above all, the casting of Wonka.

One day I remember we were at the Plaza Hotel in New York,

we were casting there.

Gene Wilder walks in.

And I looked at him and I said,

“Here’s just a line.

Would you read just a line for us from the book?”

And he reads it.

And he says, “Okay.”

I said, “Okay.”

And he starts to walk out.

And I went to the producer, Dave Wolper, and I said,

“No matter what happens, he is Willy Wonka.”

[lively music]

[Gene Wilder] I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play Willy Wonka.

The script was good,

but there was something that was bothering me.

Mel Stuart asked me, “What’s bothering you?”

It was my entrance walk.

[Harry Connick, Jr.] I think in the script

it was written as this big, energetic entrance.

[grand music]

But he wanted to come out sort of hobbling with a cane,

kind of hunched over.


[Gene Wilder] Then Willy Wonka’s cane gets stuck in a brick.

[Peter Ostrum] And when Gene came out and he’s hobbling,

and that’s not what you expect,

and then he falls and does a somersault.


That caught everybody off… off guard.

[Harry] That was Gene’s idea, and I just thought

it was so brilliant because it was really important

from the very first time that you met him,

you never know, is this guy, you know, for real,

or is he full of baloney?

Right from the get-go,

that was how he was setting himself up

for us and for the audience.

[soft music]

You could tell that this was gonna be somebody

that was gonna be fun to work with.

Right away I think we hit it off.

Gene was a father figure and my mentor.

He was one of those people,

like when you have a really good teacher,

you don’t want to let them down.

He wasn’t treating me like a kid.

I was being treated like his costar.

[Willy Wonka] Ladies and gentlemen.

[door slams]

Boys and girls.

The Chocolate Room.

[mysterious music]

[Peter Ostrum] Our first introduction

to the Chocolate Room was in fact

the first time that we had ever seen it.

And Mel wanted our initial reaction.

That wow factor.

And it was a big room, big set.

[Willy Wonka] Hold your breath.

Make a wish.

Count to three.

♪ Come with me and you’ll be

in a world of pure imagination ♪

[Peter Ostrum] Everything is not what you think.

♪ And you’ll see ♪

[Peter Ostrum] When you watched

Willy Wonka, and particularly with Gene.

He was always doing something unexpected,

even if it was going down three steps, coming back two.

Why didn’t you just go down the step?

No, no, no, no.

[bright music]

[Harry Connick, Jr.] For him to treat those lyrics

and that vocal performance

and that acting performance

with such care and specificity,

it was almost like the way a wise person

would speak to you on top of a mountaintop.

It’s not always what you expect,

but you leave feeling a lot more enlightened

than you did when you got there.

[mysterious music]

We are the music makers

and we are the dreamers of the dreams.

[Harry Connick, Jr.] And that was Gene’s great gift.

[waterfall flowing]

[Mel Stuart] The guy that built that set,

Harper Goff, was a brilliant designer.

He had built the most beautiful office

for Mr. Wonka for the end of the film.

Charlie’s gonna say goodbye.

I said, “No, Wonka’s berserk.”

I said, “I want you to cut

every piece of furniture in half.

I want the desks in half,

I want the vault in half,

I want the piece of paper he reads in half.

You’ve gotta keep the madness up to the last minute.

Mr. Wonka.

[Willy Wonka] I am extraordinarily busy, sir.

I just wanted to ask about the chocolate.

It was unrehearsed.

Gene knew what he was gonna do,

but we didn’t know what he was gonna do.

The lifetime supply of chocolate for Charlie.

When does he get it?

[Willy Wonka] He doesn’t.

Why not?

Because he broke the rules.

What rules?

We didn’t see any rules, did we, Charlie?

And they didn’t know what I was gonna do.

But I really let ’em have it.

Wrong, sir, wrong.

Well, I knew that he was gonna get a little upset with us,

but I didn’t know he was gonna get that upset,

you know, with us.

It’s all there, black and white,

clear as crystal!

You stole Fizzy Lifting Drinks!

You bumped into the ceiling,

which now has to be washed and sterilized,

so you get nothing!

You lose!

Good day, sir!

He wasn’t gonna tell you what he was gonna do.

And so your expression,

your reaction was a genuine reaction.


My boy.

[Peter Ostrum] In retrospect, Gene made it quite easy for me.

That’s what good actors do.

They help their partners on stage.

[Harry Connick, Jr.] This is a very contemplative artist.

The stars aligned,

because that kind of artistry is… is super rare.

[Ben Mankiewicz] One of the best reviews of Willy Wonka

comes from probably the greatest film critic

of his generation, Roger Ebert,

who says that Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

is probably the best film of its sort

since The Wizard of Oz.

“It is everything that family movies

usually claim to be, but aren’t:

Delightful, funny, scary, exciting,

and most of all, a genuine work of imagination.”

[soft, curious music]

[Gene Wilder] I was asked to do publicity in Chicago

for the release of Willy Wonka.

The next day, I got a call from Woody Allen.

“I want to do a remake of Sister Carrie,” he said.

I love you so much.

[Gene Wilder] “But instead of a woman

in Jennifer Jones’ part, I want to use a sheep.”

[soft, quirky music]

I knew before reading the script why he wanted me.

An actor who could believably fall in love with a sheep

and play it straight.

[energetic music]

When I left for Los Angeles to do Woody’s film…

I found out that Willy Wonka had failed at the box office.

I was told that many mothers thought

the lessons in the movie were too cruel

for children to understand.

I was leaving for California to do Woody’s film

in hopes of resurrecting my career.

During all of the filming

of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex,

Woody said, “If you don’t like any of these lines,

just change them to what you’d like to say.”

Hello, Daisy.


[Daisy bleats]

She’s so…

[Gene Wilder] It seemed an extraordinary thing to say.

Woody’s great confidence was not that he knew

he’d chosen the right actor,

but that the event he had written

was more important than the particular words

the actor used to bring that event to life.

Mr. Milos, I, uh…

I’d like to see the two of you again,

but right now, you know, my office is jammed full.

Oh, I knew you could help.

I knew… thank you, Doctor.

As a matter of fact, uh,

if I could see Daisy alone,

maybe, you know…

Anything, anything.

{\an8}You know, Gene was able to do things in comedy

{\an8}that are dangerous to do,

because he went often

for such an extreme characterization

or such an extreme situation,

digging down into yourself

to find this absurd reality.


I know this must all seem very strange to you.

You from the hills of Armenia

and me from Jackson Heights.

And yet I think it could work…

if we gave it a chance.

{\an8}You could have substituted

{\an8}the most glamorous female movie star

for the sheep the way Gene treated the sheep.

I don’t think I’ve ever known such peace and happiness

in my life.

There’s this ability to be simple and honest…

Is it my imagination

or do you really smell from lamb chops?

…in a situation which is extraordinary and absurd.

[judge] Defendant did commit an adulterous act with a sheep.

It’s most distasteful in view of the fact

that the sheep was under 18 years old.

[bright music]

[Gene Wilder] The memory of

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex

was so happy that it was making me sad,

wondering if I would ever be asked

to work on something wonderful again.

[contemplative music]

In California, Mel Brooks was doing preproduction

on a film called Black Bart.

The title was later changed to Blazing Saddles.

[Mel Brooks] It was a Western poking fun at Westerns.

Has anybody got a dime?

[indistinct chatter]

[Mel Brooks] My biggest problem was finding the Waco Kid.

The Waco Kid is the sidekick to the Black sheriff.

An alcoholic that’s struggling to stay alive in the world.

Then I saw a movie with Gig Young,

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

But I sure as hell can spot a loser.

[soft piano music]

[Mel Brooks] A wonderful actor.

And I found out that in real life

he was a bit of an alcoholic.

His agent said, “No, no,

he’s been on the wagon for two years.

Not to worry.”

But life has taught me “not to worry” means worry!

[energetic music]

Anyway, we start shooting.

We’re in the jail.

The Waco Kid is upside down.

Are we awake?

[Mel Brooks] There’s Cleavon Little

upside down from the Waco Kid’s POV,

point of view.

And Gig Young, he’s struggling.

“Are we Bla… are we Bla…”

He never finished the word Black.

And ended it with a geyser of green vomit

that shot across the jail cell

and got the crew and everybody drenched.

[siren wailing]

So we called for an ambulance

and got him to the hospital in Burbank.

The doctor who was treating him said,

“He’s suffering from the DTs,”

or what’s that, delirium tremens.

It’s a thing alcoholics get.

So he hadn’t stopped drinking.

I said, “Well, can he work?”

And he said, “Yeah, in about three or four months.”

This is Friday, I’ve got a shoot Monday.


It came to me right then and there, Gene Wilder.

He’ll save me.

He saved me on The Producers.

He will save me.

And I called him and I said,

and I was crying…

I said, “Gene, I need you!

I need you! Come here!

Come. Save me.”

[Gene Wilder] He called me from the phone on stage.

He said, “Can you come tomorrow?”

I said, “I’m supposed to go to London to do, uh,

The Little Prince with Stanley Donen directing.”

“Beg off.”


The next day I was on a plane,

and the next day I was hanging upside down in a jail cell.

Are we awake?

We are not sure.

Are we Black?

You know, it’s just so great, his reading.

And I said, “That’s the Waco Kid.”

[Western style music]

Send a wire to the main office and tell ’em that I said…

[ringing thud]


Send wire, main office.

Tell them I said, “Ow.” Gotcha.

{\an8}I was one of the bad guys,

{\an8}but I was the funniest one of the bad guys, too.

And I played him all through the thing,

maybe not quite all there up here.

[curious music]

We come riding up in the picture

and meet the Waco Kid and the sheriff.

And Mr. Taggart says, “We’re gonna shoot you guys.”

All right, boys.

On a count of three.

I wouldn’t do that if I were you.

[Burton Gilliam] We have our guns drawn

and we’re gonna shoot all the good guys.

Gene, being the quick draw that he was,

he’s kind of like,

“I got something here that you don’t know I’ve got.”

[suspenseful music]


He puts his guns back and you can see the smoke

coming out of his holsters there.


So I’ll remember Gene not just by his acting ability,

which was wonderful…

[mellow country music]

…but because he was so good to me and so supportive.

[band music]

[crowd] Hurray!

Hurray! Hurray!

[music stops]

[hooves clopping]

[Mel Brooks] Even though it was a wild comedy…

[chair thuds]

…in Blazing Saddles…

[sign clatters]

…racial prejudice is the engine

that really drives the film and helps to make it work.

Good mornin’, ma’am.

[Mel Brooks] Cleavon Little, he sees a little old lady.

…a lovely morning?

Trying to make friends with the citizens of Rock Ridge,

and she says, “Up yours, n-word.”

The sheriff shakes his head and we can see tears.

And Gene read these lines so beautifully.

What did you expect?

“Welcome, sonny, make yourself at home”?

“Marry my daughter”?

You gotta remember that these are just simple farmers.

These are people of the land.

The common clay of the new West.

You know…



[bright music]

And… and that was one of the funniest, you know,

laughs in the whole picture,

and nobody in the world could have handled it

half as well as Gene Wilder.

[Burton Gilliam] And you can tell

from the scene and listening to him,

he’s speaking from the heart.

[Ben Mankiewicz] There is this authenticity to the Waco Kid

that I don’t think someone like John Wayne or Gig Young

would have brought,

because instantly it would have registered,

“Oh, this is a veteran Western character actor

doing a parody of a Western character actor.”

Gene Wilder played the Waco Kid

as crazy and nutty but entirely believable.

Where are you headed, cowboy?

[soft Western style music]

Nowhere special.

Nowhere special.

I always wanted to go there.

What can I tell ya?

He did a magnificent job all through the picture.

[Ben Mankiewicz] I think 1974’s probably the perfect year

for Blazing Saddles.

Blaxploitation films at their height.

Having a smart and thoughtful Western parody

that really takes a hard look at America’s racism,

that is genius.

[bright music]

[Mike Medavoy] I met Gene one day

when I was buying clothes in Beverly Hills.

{\an8}I introduced myself.

{\an8}I said, “Gene, you know, I’m Mike Medavoy.

{\an8}I’m an agent and I’d like to represent you.”

And I said, “The truth is, I look at your career,

you oughta be writing and probably directing too.”

[Gene Wilder] Because of that accidental bump

on the street corner,

Mike Medavoy became my California agent.

And I signed Gene.

[tranquil music]

[Gene Wilder] I rented a small house on the bay

in Westhampton Beach, New York.

After lunch one afternoon,

I walked up to my bedroom

with a yellow legal pad and a blue felt pen.

At the top of the page, I wrote,

“Young Frankenstein.”

[dramatic music]

“The Birth of a Monster.”

And then wrote two pages of what might happen to me

if I were the great-grandson of Beaufort von Frankenstein

and was called to Transylvania

because I had just inherited

the Frankenstein estate.

[mysterious music]

That night I watched a summer replacement television show

called The Marty Feldman Comedy Machine.

Would you, uh, walk this way?

[Gene Wilder] After seeing it,

I said, “Who is that funny man on television?”

A week later, I received a call

from my California agent, Mike Medavoy.

[Mike Medavoy] I was sitting in my office

and Marty Feldman and his wife were there

to try to get me to represent him.

And then Peter Boyle walked into the office.

And so I introduced all of them.

And I decided, “You know what?

I have a feeling that this would be a really good group

to put together with Gene.”

So I called Gene up on the phone.

[phone dialing]

[phone ringing]

And I said, “Gene, do you have anything that you can do

with Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle?”

I said, “How did you happen to come up with that?”

He said, “‘Cause I represent you and Marty and Peter.”

And, uh…

[audience laughs]

As it happens,

I think I do have something.

I want to work on it for another day.

I’ll send it to you.

[typing] That night, inspired by

having just seen Marty Feldman on television,

I wrote a scene that takes place at Transylvania Station

where Igor and Frederick meet for the first time

almost verbatim the way it was later filmed.

[scraping footsteps]

[Igor] Dr. Frankenstein?

[thunder crashes]

[eerie music]


You’re putting me on.

[Gene Wilder] I called Mel Brooks and told him

my little Frankenstein scenario.

[soft music]

“Cute,” he said, “that’s cute.”

“What’s your dream for this?”

He said, “I want you to write it with me and direct it.

And not be in it.”


And I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”


[Gene Wilder] The next morning, I would start writing.

Mel would come over after dinner each evening

and look at the pages.

When we thought we had a good script,

we met Mike Gruskoff,

a wonderful guy and a wonderful producer.

And he said, “I’ve had a discussion already

with Columbia Pictures.”

“Yeah? Yeah?”

[Mike Gruskoff] Gene, Mel, and I,

we had a meeting at Columbia.

I said, “We really like the script.”

{\an8}We thought we had something good, you know?

{\an8}We definitely thought we had something good.

We shook hands.

We’re ready, we’re ready to make Young Frankenstein

for Columbia Pictures.

As we leave the… the meeting,

I get to the door, before I shut it, I say,

“Oh, by the way…”

[dramatic music]

“…in the James Whale 1931 Universal tradition,

we are making it in black and white.”

Closed the door, left.

[quirky music]

A thundering herd of Jewish executives

run after us down the hall, saying,

“No, no, it’s a deal-breaker.”

And as one,

Gruskoff, and Gene, and Mel shouted back,

“Then break it.”

Nobody wanted to do a black and white movie.

Mike Gruskoff actually was very friendly with Alan Ladd,

and took it to Fox.

[Mike Gruskoff] Alan Ladd, Jr. was one of my close friends.

He had come to Fox.

Three days later, we had a deal.

[dramatic music]

[Ben Mankiewicz] If you’re gonna make a parody tribute film

of James Whale’s Frankenstein,

you’re gonna have to do that in black and white

if you’re gonna do it right.

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder understood that.

Columbia executives,

to their eternal regret,

did not.

[thunder crashes]

[dramatic music]

[Gene Wilder] Making Young Frankenstein

was the happiest I’d ever been on a film.

[soft music]

Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle,

Marty Feldman, Teri Garr,

Cloris Leachman, Kenny Mars,

and Mel directing.

It was like taking a small breath of heaven each day.

[Mike Gruskoff] Creatively, I let them do their thing.

Gene and Mel take it to the next step.

They go beyond.

They have balls,

that’s what they have.

[door handle clanging]

What knockers!

Oh, thank you, Doctor.

[soft, quirky music]

[Mike Gruskoff] Mel and Gene,

they’re not afraid to go big.

They’re not afraid of failure.

They’ll take a chance.

The only thing that concerns me

is the preservation of life!

[Mel Brooks] I never had to give Gene any direction.

And I didn’t have to, really,

’cause he was such a good actor.

We shall ascend into the heavens.

[thunder crashes]

We shall mock the earthquake.

[Mel Brooks] We had a code, blue and orange.

When I said, “Gene, blue,” meant, “Bring it up.”

Give me more intensity, more excitement.

When I said, “Orange,”

I want you to play over the top.

I’d say, “Gene, I need orange here at the end of this.”

“Got it.”

Life, do you hear me?


Give my creation life!

[Mel Brooks] He could hit a high note…

[thunder crashes]

…easily as high as Maria Callas.

He… he could go there.

He was amazing.

[soft, quirky music]

[Alan Alda] I had favorite moments of him,

as I do of most actors.

I admire so much the big moments

when he still was believable.

It’s alive!

And then there was a quiet moment

in Young Frankenstein

when it was just as ludicrous,

but it was quiet and sincere.

He was questioning Igor like a little boy.

Would you mind telling me…

whose brain I did put in?

And you won’t be angry?

I will not be angry.

Abby someone.

Abby someone?

Abby who?

Abby Normal.

“Abby Normal.”

I’m almost sure that was the name.

[forced laughter]

Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain

into a seven-and-a-halffoot long,




He was so real about it

that it was just as absurd as the big, showy moment,

but even more hilarious,

because he meant it, he really meant it.

[flourish of harp]

We shall be friends.

[Michael Gruskoff] It was Gene Wilder’s idea.

He says, “Well, maybe I can get Gene Hackman

to play the blind guy.”

Because they were pals.

And he got Hackman,

who was so great.

Are you ready for your soup?


Oh, my friend, my friend.

You don’t know how long I’ve waited for the pleasure

of another human being.

And sometimes, in our preoccupation…


[soft chuckling]

And he was funny, he was very funny, you know?


[Gene Wilder] We never improvised dialogue on the set.

Would you like to have a roll in the hay?

[Gene Wilder] Physical actions, yes,

but not dialogue.

♪ Roll, roll, roll in the hay ♪

[camera assistant] Marker.

[Gene Wilder] We were filming the scene

of Madeline Kahn’s arrival at the Frankenstein castle.

[Mel Brooks] Action!

[Gene Wilder] She was wearing a fox stole

and a big turban on her head,

and then Marty,

in one of his impulsive inspirations,

took a huge bite out of the tail of the fox fur

that Madeline was wearing around her neck.

But the tail came off in his mouth.

[Frankenstein] Stop that!

[Gene Wilder] And we couldn’t not laugh.

May I go in?

[Mel Brooks] Cut!


[Gene Wilder] We all laughed,

and Marty was so funny doing it.

Out of such lunacy, great comedy is born.

[robust laughter]

We had to stop a lot of times to…

That music!

[Michael Gruskoff] Because everybody was laughing.

That quaint…


[Mel Brooks] All right!

[Michael Gruskoff] We had to take breaks.

Follow me, please.


It cost me over $200.

I bought handkerchiefs,

about 150 handkerchiefs for the crew and everybody.

[Frankenstein] Now, listen to me very carefully.

Don’t put the candle back.

I said, “When you feel a laugh coming on…”


“…shove that handkerchief in your mouth.

Stifle your laugh.”

I think it may have been the “What hump?”

You know, I don’t mean to embarrass you,

but I’m a rather brilliant surgeon.

Perhaps I could help you with that hump?

What hump?

[Mel Brooks] He turned to look at the crew

and I saw a sea of white handkerchiefs.

I said, “I think we got a hit here.”

[Gene Wilder] In all the time we spent together,

Mel and I had only one argument.

It was when I showed him a scene I had written

in which Dr. Frankenstein and the monster sing and dance

to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

I said, “There’s no ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz, ‘

we are not gonna do that.

Because we have been very faithful

to James Whale and to the horror films

of the ’30s.

This makes it silly.”

I said, “No, we’re not doing it, that’s the end of it.”

I was close to rage and tears.

[audience murmuring]

I argued logic

from Dr. Frankenstein’s point of view.

His need to win over this stuffy audience

of scientists and their wives

that the monster could be taught to do anything.

And right in mid-sentence, Mel says,

“Okay, it’s in.”

[lively music playing]

“I wanted to see how hard you’d fight for it.”

And I knew if you fought hard enough,

it was right.”

[Mel Brooks] We would start shooting,

and Gene put everything he had into it to prove it.

♪ Come, let’s mix where Rockefellers walk with… ♪

[Mel Brooks] And Peter Boyle was never better.

[monster howls “Puttin’ on the Ritz” incoherently]

[Mel Brooks] After that was over, I said,

“Gene, accept my apology.

It’s the best thing in the movie.

It’s the reason we made it.”

[feet tapping rhythmically]

[audience applauds, cheers]

[tranquil music playing]

[Ben Mankiewicz] When you think about

great cinematic collaborations…

I mean, whether you’re talking about Tracy and Hepburn

or William Powell and Myrna Loy,

or, uh, Steven Spielberg and John Williams,

Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder belong in that class.

They fed off each other and that pushed them

to the heights they both achieved.

[majestic music playing]

[Gene Wilder] On the last day of filming,

during our lunch hour,

I was sitting in the Frankenstein bedroom set,

staring at the fake fireplace.

Mel wandered in and saw me.

“What’s the matter?

Why so sad?” he asked.

“I don’t want to leave Transylvania.”

[majestic music playing]

[lively music playing]

[reel clicking]

When we were in the thick of editing Young Frankenstein,

Mel turned to me and said,

“If you keep writing,

you’re gonna want to direct

just so someone doesn’t screw up what you’ve written.”

Two weeks later, fate just struck again.

Alan Ladd, Jr. asked me if I wanted to direct

Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother,

my idea for a romantic comedy

about a brother of Sherlock Holmes.

[Mel Brooks] Gene said, “There’s something

I want to write and direct.”

And Gene Wilder went on to have a very nice career

as a writer-director.

[Gene Wilder] I had a comedy scene

at the beginning of filming Sherlock

that was one of my favorites.

I’m waiting to see Lord Redcliff in his study.

There’s a tempting box of chocolates

sitting open on his desk and melting in the sun,

so I decide to steal just one tiny piece.

[box clatters]

[playful music playing]

The crew was holding back laughter,

but all I was trying to do as an actor

was to act as normally as I possibly could.

It was the same lesson I’d learned from Charlie Chaplin

when I saw The Circus.

If the physical thing you’re doing is funny,

you don’t have to act funny while doing it.

[chocolates clatter]

Just be real and it will be funnier.

The acting lesson from this film

seemed so simple,

yet it inspired me for the rest of my career.

[languid music playing]

[Carol Kane] When I was 23,

{\an8}I was miraculously nominated for Best Actress

{\an8}for a movie called Hester Street.

The phone didn’t ring for a solid year after that.

And the first call I got about work

was Gene calling about The World’s Greatest Lover.

I had never in my life done a comedy.

Why would Gene Wilder be calling for me to be in a comedy?

[Ben Mankiewicz] You get some insight into Gene

that he casts Carol Kane.

This was not a comedy actress.

He had the sense… he knew people.

I mean, Carol Kane comes off this Oscar nomination

for a dramatic role, and he thinks,

“No, funny… she’s funny.”

And now we know,

now there’s 40-plus years of evidence

that Carol Kane is funny.

But, you know, Gene recognized it.

[Gene Wilder] It was about a baker from Milwaukee in 1927

who wants to try out for a big Hollywood contest

to find the next Rudolph Valentino.

He takes his wife to Hollywood.

I will win that screen test,

not because I’m the best actor in the world,

not because I’m the sexiest man in the world,

not because I’m the most handsome man in the world,

but because I am unique!

[male singers] ♪ You ought to be in pictures ♪

♪ You’re wonderful to see ♪

♪ You ought to be in pictures ♪

♪ Oh, what a hit you would be ♪

[lively music playing]

For someone just beginning

as a director-writerproducer-star,

Gene was very calm and confident and happy.

[Alan Alda] When you write, direct, and act in a movie,

there are three ways they can kill you.

And if they wanna kill you, they go for all three.

Gene was able to exert his own artistic vision.

I’m ready!


[vintage jazz music playing]

[Carol Kane] The World’s Greatest Lover

is a big love letter to movies, Hollywood,

all his idols.


Busby Berkeley.

♪ We’re in the money ♪

[Carol Kane] Laurel and Hardy

and these classic comedy bits.

The way Gene shot the movie,

extreme close-ups frequently of the eyes,

to let the eyes do the talking,

as they did in the silent-movie era.

[tango-style music playing]

[Ben Mankiewicz] He manages to convey hurt and longing

and fear and anger in those eyes

without speaking a line.

Gene Wilder would have been a great silent actor.

No surprise that he chose to make a film

that salutes silent Hollywood.

[Carol Kane] The lighting and the costumes and the makeup

is so evocative of that time.

[lush, romantic music plays]

That obviously appealed to Gene a lot.

I love Gene’s choice of acting roles.

It’s totally eclectic.

He did what he wanted to do.

What spoke to him, what he loved,

he just did it.

[Gene Wilder] It was called The Frisco Kid.


[speaking Yiddish]

[Gene Wilder] A film about a Polish rabbi…


[Gene Wilder] …who comes to America

at the time of the gold rush…



[Gene Wilder] …and becomes best friends with a bank robber

and is captured by Indians.

Yes or no: Can your god make rain?

He doesn’t make rain!

[Gene Wilder] The rabbi and the chief form a friendship

discussing the Jewish god.

…around blindly like little mice in the darkness,

but He does not make rain!

[lightning crashes]

[indistinct chatter]

[dramatic music playing]

[rain pattering, thunder rumbling]

Of course, sometimes, just like that,

He’ll change His mind.

[soft piano music playing]

[Gene Wilder] The Frisco Kid came closer

to what I am in life than anything else.

We were never a particularly religious family

when I was growing up

in the sense of prayers at home or rituals,

other than going to my grandparents’

for a meal on Passover,

and going to the synagogue on the High Holidays.

[Rochelle Pierce] Gene’s grandfather

{\an8}was president of his old synagogue,

{\an8}which was an old, little small Orthodox synagogue

in the old Jewish neighborhood.

We had strong feelings about Judaism.

I would say Gene was spiritual.

There’s my mother in me,

and there’s my father in me.

There was a certain innocence

about the way I acted onscreen.

I must have inherited it from my father.

My father was born in Russia

but came to Milwaukee with his family when he was 11.

He wasn’t dumb, but he was very innocent.

[exclaiming in Yiddish]

[speaking Yiddish]

Dost thou speak English?

Dost thou

speak Eng…

[church bells tolling]

Oy… oy gevalt!

[indistinct murmuring]

[Gene Wilder] The wonderful Robert Aldrich was directing,

and Mace Neufeld was the producer,

but we still had to find a co-star.

{\an8}When we started to do the film,

{\an8}we were gonna use John Wayne.

And he was all excited about joining the project.

[Gene Wilder] I was so happy,

and one of the executives got the bright idea

of going out to Long Beach, California,

where John Wayne lived,

and tried to knock him down $250,000.

And he said, “Forget the whole thing.”

He was out.

[Gene Wilder] I was asked to look at the work

of an up-and-coming young actor

by the name of Harrison Ford.

I thought Harrison was charming

and might possibly get somewhere in the business.

What do you call this, in Jewish?

A… a tuchus.

Well, you keep your eyes on this too-kas

and don’t take ’em off till I tell ya.

{\an8}Harrison was super popular,

{\an8}and everybody was crazy about him,

{\an8}but Gene was different.

Gene Wilder was one of my heroes.

He was smart, he was funny, he was kind.

He made me feel very special.

I was 14 years old,

and my father said that I was okay

to actually be in the movie.

So they made me up,

probably inappropriately,

and I was the Jewish Indian.

I remember feeling very excited but very nervous

to be on the set.

Everybody dance!

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] So he’s teaching the Indians

Jewish dancing.

[Avram] That’s good with the hands.

Watch that lady!

I think that lady’s a Jewish Indian.

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] Gene had taken peyote,

but he doesn’t know that.

♪ Now we do a jump, a little bit of jump ♪

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] He is feeling the effects

of the drug.

[Avram] ♪ One, two, three ♪

[drumming and vocalizing]

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] And he passes out.

And I look at him and I go…

So, that’s my big role in the movie.

[playful music playing]

[Mace Neufeld] Now we had Harrison Ford and Gene Wilder,

and Gene Wilder carried the comedy in the movie.

[Tommy] Don’t wake me in the mornin’.

{\an8}I’ll try to be as quiet as possible!

One example of Gene’s connection to Judaism

is that Gene and Harrison Ford

are trying to get away from the bad guys.

What the hell are you doin’?

I don’t ride today.

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] And it’s the Sabbath.

You can’t ride on the Sabbath.

Gene says, “We have to wait for the sun to set.”

Not yet!


[dramatic music playing]

[Nancy Neufeld Callaway] And as soon as the sun set…


[Nancy] …off they go.

Thank God.

Longest damned day of my life.

[Gene Wilder] I’ll never be as good in drama

as I am in comedy.


[man shouts]

[Gene Wilder] But when I’m acting,

I want to be really funny

and part vulnerable.

Hey, we are doing this to keep warm, aren’t we?


In that case, you can put your arms around me.

[Gene Wilder] That’s what I like the best.

[majestic music playing]

I’m not a good actor;

I’m a good reactor.

Something happens.

That’s why Richard and I are so good together.

[jazzy music playing]

Richard Pryor and I met in Calgary, Canada,

as we were both checking in at the hotel.

The next morning, we did our first short scene

in the film Silver Streak.


There were police cars and helicopters and guns

all around us.

Argh! Shit!

Take it easy, killer.

What are you doing here?

[bullet ricochets]

When Richard and I did our first scene,

some magic happened, what they call chemistry.

I would answer him, back and forth, back and forth,

and we were on such a similar wavelength.

No thinking, just spontaneous reaction.

Who’s in charge here?

Would you get down?

[bullet ricochets]

[Gene Wilder] That was the start

of our improvisatory relationship on film.

{\an8}My dad couldn’t read very well.

{\an8}He was dyslexic a little bit.

So a lot of his education came from the feel of something.

[Gene Wilder] Richard’s way always has an emotional

rather than intellectual base.

In this regard, Richard was my teacher.

What are you doing?

I’m gettin’ bad.

Better get bad, Jack, ’cause if you ain’t bad,

you gonna get fucked.

You’re bad, they don’t mess with ya.

[Gene Wilder] Words kept coming out of my mouth

in response to things that Richard was saying.

Get down!


[Gene Wilder] Things that weren’t in the script.

You a little too bad, ain’t ya?

My dad knew undeniably

there was a magic between them.

That’s right, that’s right, we bad, uh-huh, that’s right.

Together, it was like explosive on the screen.


[Ben Mankiewicz] I don’t know what makes

a great comedy duo.

They both have to be funny,

but they have to work off each other.

[playful music playing]

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor,

they fuel each other.

And their improvs made them both better.

[Gene Wilder] The director, Sidney Poitier,

wanted the script rewritten to accommodate

the particular talents of his two stars.

Then he said, “I want you both to fly.”

Please! He’s sick, he’s… he’s havin’ a fit.

See, he don’t have his tooth pills.

He’s got… see?

And we did fly.


[groans loudly]

Harry, for God’s sake.


You’re gonna get us in trouble.

[Rain Pryor] They’re wild together.

Your crew is laughing.

Harry, here, come here.

They weren’t afraid to be silly,

and it comes out genius.

All right, you two.

Up and at ’em!

[groaning and grunting]

Argh! I can’t feel nothin’ in my leg!

[Gene Wilder] Richard and I were certainly silly together,

at least on film.

But as close as we were on film,

it didn’t carry over to our private lives.

[Rain Pryor] When the camera was off, that was it.

[bluesy organ music playing]

And that’s kind of how they were,

and I understand that.

I mean, they were two polar opposites.

Gene, when you were doing those movies

with Richard Pryor,

did his drug usage ever get in the way of the film?

I got to know Richard

and I got to love him,

and he was going through a difficult period.

But I never talked to him about that.

[Rain Pryor] Whatever it was that he was going through,

he quieted it with his drugs and alcohols and women.

It was almost like self-sabotaging,

you know, to not show up on time to set.

[dramatic music playing]

But when they came together,

a black-and-white duo team,

creating this laughter together,

that, to me, is what comedy is about.

You can’t deny that’s magic.

You’re doing all right, you’re getting the hang of it.

[Gene Wilder] My next movie project was

a comedy-mystery called Hanky Panky,

with Sidney Poitier directing.

[upbeat music playing]

Lots of female stars said they would do the movie,

but Sidney cast Gilda Radner.

[lively string music playing]

The day Gilda and I met,

I was in my makeup and dressed in a tuxedo

when I walked up to her to say hello.

Stay here, I’ll be right back.

[Bobbie Wygant] Your co-star in this is Gilda Radner.

Isn’t she wonderful?

Why are you smiling?

‘Cause you wanna know what I think of her,

it’d be more than wonderful, yes.

{\an8}[Alan Zweibel] When Gilda went to do the movie Hanky Panky,

{\an8}she was having difficulty in the marriage that she was in.

[serene music playing]

So when she told me that she’s becoming

very friendly with Gene Wilder,

very friendly, I’m going, “All right.”

That was a euphemism for,

“I’m gonna end up with Gene Wilder.”

[beguiling music playing]

[Robin Zweibel] He had a mesmerizing stare.

{\an8}And those eyes, those blue…

{\an8}I mean, I could see why Gilda fell in love with him.

Gilda was like 14-ish when her dad died.

Gene was one-stop shopping.

He was older,

so there was the dad thing.

He already had his own career.

And she was grateful for it.

[Gene Wilder] Gilda was the most generous

and compassionate and original person

I had ever met.

It was wonderful to be with Gilda,

most of the time.

She was so strong-willed and yet so fragile.

When Gilda met Gene,

she had a world of problems.

She drank too much.

She was a bulimic.

And Gene sent her to a battery of doctors

to redo her, to fix her,

and rehabilitates her, to a degree.

[rousing music playing]

[Gene Wilder] We were living in Los Angeles,

having just finished filming The Woman in Red.

Seeing Gilda looking strong and healthy and so happy,

I thought, “Maybe things between us can work.”

[Mel Brooks] If I found a restaurant

that was interesting,

I’d always call him and say, “Let’s go here.”

And he’d take Gilda,

who loved my wife, Anne,

and Anne loved Gilda, so it was perfect.

We were best friends, it was wonderful.

{\an8}[Gene Wilder] Gilda was different.

{\an8}She said, “I’m not a perfect woman

that you’ve been searching for all your life.

I’m just little, imperfect Gilda.

And if that’s what you want, a real love,

I’m your best bet.”

We were married on September 18th, 1984.

[whimsical music playing]

She was 38 years old.

Now she wanted a baby.

Desperately, of course.

Just when it stops before you go away again.

Meanwhile, I was making a new movie,

Haunted Honeymoon.

{\an8}It’s always much easier to kiss someone in a movie

that you kiss all the time.

‘Cause it’s familiar territory!

[Robin Zweibel] Gilda found out that she was pregnant

and was thrilled beyond belief.

She went in for an exam

and found out it was an ectopic pregnancy,

and it was devastating.

Everything was devastating.

A couple months after the surgery,

that’s when they realized that she had ovarian cancer.

[Gene Wilder] Gilda grabbed my face in her hands

and sobbed.

“No more bad news, no more bad news.

I don’t want any more bad news.”

[somber music playing]

There’s something mythological

about somebody going through all of this,

finding the love of their lives,

and then, God saying, “Ha.

You’re not gonna enjoy this.”

[Robin Zweibel] She was on such a beautiful path

and beautiful life.

Everything that she ever dreamt of

was happening,

and then, this was like a bomb

that fell in her lap.

[shutter clicks]

[Gene Wilder] Between her chemotherapy treatments,

Gilda would come home and try to lead

as normal a life as possible,

but the first few days were always exhausting

because she was so hyped-up from steroids.

[Alan Zweibel] I remember, we were out once,

I said, “How you doing?”

And she said, “I’m doing the best I can,

but, poor Gene.

You have no idea what I’m putting that guy through.”

It was unfortunate he had to be put to that test,

but he was terrific.

She made herself very public when she was sick.

She was on the cover of Life magazine.

She did a thousand interviews.

She went on Letterman

and on a show I co-created called

It’s Garry Shandling’s Show.

Gene was very supportive of her coming on.

When she got cancer,

I never thought that she would die from it.

I thought she’d lick it.

I was stupid, ’cause everyone else seemed to know

but I didn’t.

[tranquil music playing]

She was 43 years old when she died.

[bird chirping]

I buried her in front of a tall white ash tree

three miles from her home in Connecticut.

I used to worry all my early life

about being good enough to please God.

Gilda didn’t think about those things.

She was just naturally good.

I don’t want to be a better person than Gilda.

She was just human,

and that’s all I want to be, just human.

[pensive music playing]

In our bedroom in Connecticut,

for the sake of my psychological health,

I was rewriting a comedy for me and Richard Pryor.

It sounds oxymoronic,

but absurdity was a familiar guest now.

[serene music playing]

I had done research

at the Braille Institute in Los Angeles

which gave me confidence in writing Richard’s part.

I needed to know about people who were profoundly deaf,

which was the case with the character I was to play.

[sprightly music playing]

So I went to see this lady

at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing.

They told me her name was “Ms. Webb.”

I said, “Oh my God, my luck,

some New England old biddy is gonna say,

‘You’re making fun of the blind and the deaf!'”

{\an8}So I just thought,

{\an8}I’ll meet him just like a regular person.

And he wasn’t a regular person.

He was gorgeous!


[bright music playing]

He was very interested in getting his character right.

He came to class and he saw

how people learned how to lip-read.


And he’d ask them a question,

like, “Does everybody say, ‘What are you, fuckin’ deaf?'”

And they’d say, “All the time.”

[horn blaring]

And that line is in the movie.

[driver] What are you, fuckin’ deaf? Move!

[woman] Get out of the way!

[Gene Wilder] And then I would take little plugs

and put them in my ears so I could walk

through the streets of New York, and it cut out

about 65 percent of sound.

Ya dumb idiot!

You’re a dumb idiot!

You talkin’ to me?

[Rain Pryor] See No Evil, Hear No Evil

was a big deal for Daddy

{\an8}because it was two and half years into

{\an8}his multiple sclerosis diagnosis.

He needed something for him to show

he could still do what he does.

Dad was definitely very authentic,

because he was going through all those things.

He was having trouble.

He… he was that blind man…

I’m blind.

[Rain Pryor]…who lost his eyesight.

You’re blind?

Yes, I’m blind. Now can I have the job?

So, everything was authentic for him in that moment.

[Richard Pryor] And we were very conscious

of the fact that we were doing

a film about people with a disability.

We worked very diligently

at not offending people.

I had no idea, I’m sorry.

[Wally] Now you know. Can I get the job?

You’re really blind?

Yes. I’m really blind, man!

What are you, fuckin’ deaf?

Yes! I’m fucking deaf!

They both were so vulnerable,

and I think they both wore their hearts on their sleeve,

and that’s what we see coming across, you know,

on the camera, is this real love.

I got to be on set and watch the process

of them work together,

and the kindness that I saw Gene display

towards my dad, who was struggling sometimes physically.

We have steps coming up, Wally.

Three steps, and…

[Rain Pryor] I witnessed my dad having trouble walking,

holding on, and remembering lines

because of the MS.

And I loved that, in a non-obvious way,

Gene was there for him to be able to be unsteady

but not come off unsteady to us.

That’s teamwork.


[Gene Wilder] Of all the pleasurable times

that Richard and I had on previous films…

and there were some wonderful times,

despite the difficulties…

the experience on See No Evil, Hear No Evil

was the happiest.

What are you doing?

[Gene Wilder] Richard was sane

and clearheaded and filled with good humor.

I have a lot of love for you.

[Dave] Thank you.

[gentle thud]

Ha! Ha-ha!

People looked forward to these “buddy” films.

[soft music playing]

The formula wasn’t just in the writing;

the formula was the two people.

Here they were,

from different sides of racial lines,

being able to come together and make us laugh.

And that’s an amazing legacy.

[stirring music playing]

[Gene Wilder] In September of 1989,

I got a call from

the New York League for the Hard of Hearing

saying that Ms. Webb wanted to speak to me.

I called him and said that I had grant money…

{\an8}…to make a videotape

{\an8}for people to learn to speech-read

{\an8}so that we could put them in libraries.

And he said, “I’d help you with that.”

[Gene Wilder] We arranged to meet

at my favorite Italian restaurant in Manhattan.

She set a tape recorder between us,

and while we ate,

Karen posed common problems for the hearing-impaired.

The second time we met, at the same restaurant,

we worked on improving the actual language

that the characters in each sketch would use.

The third week, I said,

“Leave the tape recorder at home.”

[audience laughter]

We had our first actual date

on a beautiful fall evening in the same restaurant

at the same corner table.

[Karen Wilder] He was unique in that he truly listened.

He was just a different kind of person

than I’d ever met.

[shutter snaps]

[Gene Wilder] I’d hold Karen’s hand.

To have found someone at this stage in my life…

I was in love.

Now I’ll go back to watercolor painting

and maybe to acting, if I get another job,

and… and I’m gonna get married.

Are… Is this an announcement?

Can we… can we… I mean, is this the first time

you’ve mentioned it?

Yes, yeah.

[Dick Cavett] You kiddin’ me?

I was wondering whether to ask her, and I…

Looking at you, I decided,

“I’m going to ask that girl to marry me.”


[soft, sprightly music playing]

On September 8th, 1991,

Karen and I were married in the backyard

of the home in Connecticut that Gilda had left me.

Fate brought us together at this exact point

in both of our lives.

If I hadn’t been in See No Evil, Hear No Evil,

I would never have met “Ms. Webb,”

and now I’m married to her.

[Karen Wilder] Gene was wonderful.

He was the best husband I think anybody could ask for.

To love and be loved is the best gift in the world.

And we had that.

[pensive music playing]

We did watercolors together.

And we played tennis together.

And we walked together,

we played golf together.

He was the world’s greatest lover,

and he was my Frisco Kid.

He truly cared about me.

He loved my family, even my grandchildren.

And everybody felt that love.

[gibberish, laughter]

[Gene Wilder] We took tap-dancing lessons

once a week.

Karen found a wonderful teacher,

and here’s the amazing thing:

It felt as exciting as it did

when we had our first actual date

when she was still a stranger to me.

With Karen, I do believe in fate.

[uplifting music playing]

[Conan O’Brien] You’ve been through so much.

You’ve had incredible career success.

You’ve had tragedy in your life.

You seem like you’re in a really good place now,

you’re happy, and that made me feel really, you know…

that made me feel good, ’cause I just…

I want you to be happy, so that was nice.

That’s true, right? You feel good.

I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.

That’s fantastic. Well…

[audience applause]

That makes…

[Karen Wilder] When he had television interviews,

I went with him.

I went with him everywhere.

I went to the movie set.

And I would watch him act.


[audience laughter]

I’m sorry, Mr. Truman.

Does my pounding disturb you?

No, sir.

It just… just caught me by surprise.

Oh, okay, well, I’ll try to be more considerate

in the future!

[Eric McCormack] We were blessed with Gene

coming on Will & Grace.

[thumping, kicking]

We were just floored.

[door slams]

{\an8}I like to think that he recognized

{\an8}something in the show that…

that harkened back to all the things he brought.

He was so kind and gentle.

And I just wanted to make him laugh.

Say, “I’m Stein.”

I’m Stein.

Louder! “I’m Stein!”

Louder! “I’m Stein!”

I surprised him with something in a take

that I’m very proud of.

[Will] Your name is Frankenstein!

[Eric McCormack] It was just so lovely.

It’s one of my favorite memories.

[Gene and audience laughing]

There was a gentleness to the show,

and there was a sensitivity to the show,

and there was an insane wackiness to the show.


[Eric McCormack] And he got to do all of those things.

[all] Hear, hear!

[glasses clinking]

[Eric McCormack] It was almost like a victory lap.

[soft music playing]

I don’t want to have to prove

that I’m a good actor anymore.

I started writing a novel.

[uplifting music playing]

Right now, I would rather write fiction than act.

[Alan Alda] Gene was an extremely talented person

in many areas.

He was a very, very good painter,

mainly watercolors,

and he studied hard, he took lessons,

he kept trying to get better and better.

[audience laughter]

Will you just shut your mouth?

I’m having a heart attack.

Oh, nonsense!

[Carol Kane] I got to do some plays with Gene

at the Westport Playhouse, and that was fun,

fun to be on stage with him.

Both Gene and I come from a background of theater,

and he was a very creative guy

and a big appreciator of other people’s creativity.

[audience applause]

[melancholic music playing]

[Karen Wilder] The first signs something was wrong

were when I noticed Gene would forget things

that were really always easy for him to remember.

But when-when we did the one in-in jail…

[moderator] Stir Crazy.

Yeah. It was Stir Crazy, wasn’t it?

[Karen Wilder] He didn’t remember the name

of the movie Young Frankenstein.

He would’ve never, ever forgot that,

because that was his favorite movie.

He then started to forget many things,

and I asked him if he’d noticed

and if he’d go for an evaluation,

and he said, “If it gets worse.”

A lot of people have mild cognitive impairment

and it doesn’t progress,

and I suppose I hoped that was what it was.

I found a doctor who did the comprehensive test

for cognitive impairment in Connecticut.

Gene was amazed that he couldn’t draw a clock

and make it 10:30.

And he couldn’t do it.

He wasn’t upset,

he just couldn’t figure out why.

But I knew then that something was very wrong.

[pensive music playing]

Our friend suggested we go see Dr. Michael Rafii

in San Diego, where we’ve spent the winters.

{\an8}I first met Gene in January of 2014,

{\an8}where he was 80 years old.

Based on the history, the examination,

memory testing, MRI of the brain,

as well as a very specialized kind of scan

called an amyloid PET scan,

was confirmatory for his diagnosis.

Alzheimer’s disease dementia.

[Karen Wilder] I said, “Oh, no.”

And Gene said, “Oh, no.”

[melancholic music playing]

He never really accepted that he had Alzheimer’s,

and maybe by the time we found out that’s what it was,

his hippocampus didn’t let him remember.

So I’m not sure that he ever knew.

When I’d see him slip away further from me,

I was sick to my stomach,

but I had to keep smiling

and tell him that everything was okay.

That was the hardest part for me.

Gene certainly had memory loss

that progressively worsened over time

and also included some other thinking skills

that were affected, including language.

[cell phone rings]

[Mel Brooks] I called him a lot,

thinking maybe if I gave him enough references,

I could get him out of it.

Insanity, in my part.

He was in the throes of that terrible disease.

We could never talk too long after he got it.

It was so sad, it made me cry a lot, you know.

We still went out to dinner,

and he made it to his nephew’s wedding.

[guests clap, sing]

He could hardly walk.

He danced down the aisle

and made it through the wedding.

[guests clap, sing]

[Harry Connick, Jr.] He was always in our prayers,

and it’s a sad thing to see somebody

that you love so much, you know, suffer like that.

To Karen and anybody, you know,

who was involved with him intimately,

it’s hard… it’s hard to see that.

[Karen Wilder] People think Alzheimer’s is

only a memory disease,

but what attacks your brain attacks your body.

Couldn’t put on his shoes, couldn’t tie his tie.

One time, he fell,

and there were three of us,

and we couldn’t get him up on the bed.

And finally, we ended up laughing.

We have pictures of all of us laughing.

Took us couple of hours.

He was dying, and Gene looked at me and says,

“Is that what’s happening?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Yes.”

[somber music playing]

He hadn’t walked alone,

and it was just a few days before he died,

and I looked up,

and he was walking across the kitchen.


And… and then he said, “I want to go swimming.”

He dove into the pool like he used to.

I saw his little tush in the air,

and I was awestruck.

And he took two strokes, he stood up,

shook his head the way he always did

to get the water out of his ear, and said,

“That’s good.”

Went back to bed,

and I think he just wanted to get in the pool

one more time.

We always had music playing in the house.

We used to listen to Ella Fitzgerald.

The music was playing in the background.

[“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” music playing]

[Ella Fitzgerald] ♪ Somewhere over the rainbow ♪

[Karen Wilder] Ella Fitzgerald was singing

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

[Ella Fitzgerald] ♪ Way up high ♪

I was lying next to him,

and he sat up in bed and he said…

“I trust you.”

Then he said, “I love you.”

[“Somewhere Over the Rainbow” music playing]

That’s the last thing he said.

{\an8}[James Corden] There was some really sad news

{\an8}about the passing of Gene Wilder.

{\an8}We’re learning more about the death of Gene Wilder.

{\an8}One of the most legendary comedic talents of our time…

{\an8}…has died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The reactions pouring in from coast to coast.

[Mel Brooks] I was inconsolable for a couple of weeks.

When he lived his life, he lived it loud and eloquently.

He was an outstanding actor,

and also, an outstanding person.

You are my best friend!

[tender music playing]

[Ben Mankiewicz] I believe Leo Bloom exists.

I believe the Waco Kid exists.

I believe Dr. Frankenstein exists.

That’s insane.

Gene makes you think that that guy is out there,

trying his hardest,

despite all these obstacles,

to navigate this impossible world.

He embodied these characters,

and we felt their humanity.

This is a wonderful man.

He made me what I am today.

[Mel Brooks] I miss his enjoying my humor.

I could make him laugh

where he would sometimes grab his belly,

hit the ground,

and roll around on the ground and laugh.

That’s the real payment in being a comic.

And, boy, he paid, he was delicious.

[pensive music playing]

[Gene Wilder] Acting seems so much easier than life, and when I’m taking my bow, I have the belief that I’ve earned my feeling of grace, as if God were saying, “You did something worthwhile.”

[soft music playing]

[exuberant music playing]

[jaunty music playing]

[exuberant music playing]


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