Another sad page added to the list of farewells to pieces of my youth that gave me joy.
I loved this guy. The most wondrous, funny, brilliant Gene Wilder has passed away. It was a even sadder and shocking to see that his passing was from Alzheimer’s disease. But when I read the statement from Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman in regards to why Gene kept his diagnosis a secret, it made perfect sense. The statement read:
“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
How beautiful is that? Gene’s heart was bigger than Alzheimer’s. It didn’t deprave him of his family recognition, and he wouldn’t let deprive his admirers of their joy.
And what joy he brought! Willy Wonka, Dr. Fredrick Fronk-en-Steen, and The Waco Kid. One moment he was a screaming neurotic, the next a gentle loving soul. Whether he was the drunken gunslinger or a magical candy man, you believed every moment, even it his character was untrustworthy.
There’s a famous scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when Wonka makes his first entrance. Gene would only do the movie if he could act this scene a certain way: Wonka limps down to the gate with his cane, which gets stuck in the cobblestones just before the entrance. Wonka starts to fall forward but it evolves into a perfect forward somersault, from which he springs up triumphant. This was important for the character, for as Wilder noted “You’d never know if he’s lying or telling the truth.”
Gene understood his characters and always let their humanity shine through. Again in Wonka, when he first has to chastise Charlie to see if Charlie will return his Everlasting Gobstopper, he is a frightening, livid firestorm. When Charlie gives back the candy, his joy cannot be contained. Both of these traits are the real Wilder, who took his stage name from playwright Thornton Wilder (Born Jerome Silberman) but he was much more the gentle soul in real life than the volcano he’d portray. Growing up with a mother who ailed from a heart condition, Wilder make her laugh to ease her worries. He considered this his greatest gift, although he didn’t think of himself as funny. “I make my wife laugh” he said, and that was good enough.
I cannot add much to love and accolades I’ve seen everywhere, but I’m just glad we were fortunate enough to enjoy his talents in our lifetime. To paraphrase his line in Wonka: “So shines a good Man in a weary world.” He’ll be greatly missed and forever loved. Good Night Herr Doctor. ❤