At the peak of his career, Gene Wilder wasn't recognized as the icon he has become. Years after the films have left theater screens, his roles in films like "Willy Wonka and the Charlie Factory," "The Producers" and "Young Frankenstein" are instantly recognizable and regarded as film industry benchmarks.
In his new memoir "Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love And Art," he delves into the most personal events of his life and his career in Hollywood. "AirTalk's" Larry Mantle sat down with Wilder.
On the first time he thought about comedy:
“When I was 8, my mother had her first heart attack, and when she came home from the hospital with her doctor — he was a heavyset man and he sweated a lot, and he took hold of my arm and squeezed it, and sweat was dripping down from his face to my cheeks, and he said, 'Don’t ever get angry with your mother because you might kill her.' That changed my life, but the next he said was: 'Try to make her laugh.' And I had never thought about doing that, not consciously anyway, and so, for the first time, I tried consciously to make my mother laugh — and I succeeded. Confidence gives you confidence. If she laughed, maybe other people would laugh, and I think that’s where the idea first came to mind.”
Had the physician not said that, would you be Gene Wilder?
“That’s a question I think is impossible for me to answer. My instinctive answer is 'probably not.' But who knows? When I was 11 years old and wasn’t thinking about acting at all, I went to a dramatic recital that my sister was giving, and everyone was jabbering away, and all of a sudden, the lights started to go down, then turned to black, then a spotlight hit the center of the stage and out comes my sister, and for 20 minutes she does a monologue, and you could hear a pin drop. All eyes were on her and I thought: 'That’s about as close to actually being God as you can get.' I went up to her acting teacher afterward and I said, ‘Can I study with you?’ He said, ‘If you still want to when you’re 13, come back to me.’ And I went back to him the day after my 13th birthday.”
Do you think you were a natural-born performer, or do you think it was these things that led you to acting?
“I think I was a natural artist, but not necessarily a natural performer. I’m not the best judge of that, because if I wasn’t doing one artistic thing in one area, I wanted to do another. I’m a painter now, and that was thwarted when I was in second grade, but then after I saw a film about Vincent van Gogh when I was 15, I started painting again. Now, my wife and I paint watercolors. I began to write early on, right after 'Start the Revolution Without Me' — the film that I made in France. If I’m not writing, I’m acting or painting. I think that would’ve come up naturally in some way, but whether I was a natural performer, I don’t know.”
How different is the persona that you take with you in every acting performance that you do, to the Gene Wilder at home with his wife?
“At the beginning of my career, I was a quite, terribly shy — what Mel Brooks would call a 'natural victim.’ As I got healthier, after I started psychotherapy, I came out of my shell a little bit, and by the time I did 'Young Frankenstein' I wasn’t this shy little sheep. I started blossoming, and I think it was keeping up with where I was emotionally and psychologically in my own life.”
Were you able to tap into things through what you were discovering in therapy that maybe you didn’t have access to before?
“The therapy helped me to use my own emotions more in the parts I played, than if I had never had the therapy. But I wasn’t taking therapy for that reason — I was nuts, I think. There are really two divisions of actors: those who are lending themselves, more or less as themselves, and then there are actors who have to be playing a character away from what their normal self is and then they come alive. I might do some character that’s bizarre in relation to what my own life is like, except I have to find myself in in. If I can’t see myself in that part, at some extreme part of my psyche, then I would get lost, I wouldn’t know how to play it.”
On pushing the envelope in his roles:
“I don’t think about more or less when I’m doing it. I think about what is happening to me in the situation, and if it comes out that way, then it comes out. The most important job an actor has is to build the life of a human being with a heart and a soul and a mind, as opposed to a comedian — which I don’t have the guts to do, who's out as one and the job is: get the laugh.”
You insisted on playing a specific scene with Wonka early on in the film that established the unclear nature of his character. Describe that scene and what your role was in creating it.
"When I read the script, Mel Stuart asked me what I thought and I said: ‘There’s something missing. When Wonka makes his first appearance and comes out of the factory, I think he should be with a cane and limping. And then I come walking towards them and my cane gets stuck into a brick, and then I start to fall forward and then I do a forward somersault and jump forward and they all cheer. From that time on, none will know whether I’m lying or telling the truth.' He asked if I wouldn’t do the part if I couldn’t do that. I said yes. And they said, ‘Well OK, it’s in.’ And I really wouldn’t have [done it] because I thought without that setup, the mystery isn’t there."