When I was 9, Ernie Kovacs was killed in a car accident. I was too young to remember when the Ernie Kovacs Show was on television, but my dad thought he was brilliant and much of what we knew as Dad's brand of comedy originated with the cigar-chomping Kovacs. It's no surprise I thought The Nirobi Trio was the funniest thing I'd ever seen in my life. When Mr. Kovacs died, I remember thinking there would never be anyone as funny ever again, and comedy would never be the same.
It wasn't. It was just different.
I managed to keep growing up, and I laughed at new things: Alan King on Ed Sullivan, Jack Benny, George and Gracie. TV broadened my horizons: Dick Van Dyke, Car 54 Where Are You, F-Troop....you can almost see where this is heading. The times...and the tastes...were a'changing.
Movies were my drug of choice as soon as I could convince my mother to drive my buddies and me to the movies. I saw whatever was playing. When you're spellbound in the darkness, you'll watch damn near anything if you can sit in a darkened theatre. But unlike a lot of my friends who were constantly falling in and out of love with movie stars, I was already noticing acting, not actors.
1967 was like 1939 for movies. The range was incredible. From In Cold Blood to Camelot, Cool Hand Luke to Barefoot in the Park, Casino Royale to In Like Flint, The Graduate to I Am Curious Yellow. Somewhere in the middle came this very violent, very intense movie about 1930 gangsters.
Right in the middle Bonnie and Clyde, there was this guy with nothing short of a Marcel wave hair-do. Small part, but there was something about him being funny in a place where funny didn't belong....I thought Gene Wilder was weird. I didn't know how weird for another year...when The Producers was released. This was screwball comedy on a whole 'nother level. It left people speechless. Then came Start The Revolution Without Me, and then, one of my personal favorites, Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx. And later, in 1979, there was the sweet, very touching, very funny The Frisco Kid, with a very young Harrison Ford.
Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory was released after Quackser, in 1971. Yeah, I was stoned when I went to see it, and yeah, there were a few days when I thought it was the greatest movie ever made. It wasn't, but it was the one that grew on you. Willy is weird, creepy even, although Wilder'd Willy isn't on the same level as Johnny Depp, but Wilder's blue eyes remain cold and almost dead throughout most of the film and this is not an accident or boredom; it's using the camera in ways, quite frankly, not seen before. It's riveting in a strange and peculiar...and very appropriate way. In his book, KISS LIKE A STRANGER, Wilder wrote he was hesitant to accept the part of Willy Wonka, and created a pre-condition:
When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself... but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause..
Mel Stuart, the director, asked why he wanted to do that. Wilder answered:
Because from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth.
You can't get a better answer than that. It cuts right into the heart of an actor and shares a truth every actor know, hopes for, dreams about, and once in a while succeeds at creating. That singular moment does not just happen; it comes from learning one's craft while honing one's skills. Gene Wilder left us with a good range of funny. He wasn't the biggest movie star, and, as he put it, good scripts stopped coming his way. He stopped liking what Hollywood was churning out and chose to do other things. But in the body of work, there were great characters, great performances, and great screenwriting.
That counts for everything.
Funny is highly personal, subjective, and not really very explainable. Everyone laughs at different stuff. If we are lucky, we get to share our laughter with others. What is funny to one can be offensive to others. That said, comedy is hard work, and when someone is good at it, be thankful. And when someone stands by his or her principles about what is funny and what is not, respect the opinion.
Seems we've lost a fair number of comedic icons lately: Gene Wilder, Robin Williams, Jonathan Winters, Eileen Brennan, Joan Rivers, Mike Nichols, Harold Ramis, Sid Caeser, Gary Shandling, Bernie Mac....not a complete list by any means. These people, for good or bad, changed what we laughed about. There's something to be said for that.
Comedy will not be the same; it will be different.
I tripped across an interview done by Robert Osborne at the 92nd Street Y back in 2013. Clearly Mr. Wilder is frail; he has trouble remembering some things. He looks terribly old. In many ways, it's a hard interview to watch, but I am glad I saw it. In the press release today, Mr. Wilder's nephew said he died of complications from Alzheimer's. It's clear from the video he was losing his words. It's amazing that he agreed to do the interview. But then again, he knew what was happening to him.
Willy Wonka is still a pretty creepy movie. And Gene Wilder gives creepy a whole new definition when he sings Pure Imagination. Watch it for yourself. The lyrics, however, are not creepy. I still think Roald Dahl gave us a strange character in Willy Wonka, but Gene Wilder managed to shape him into the magic man we all hope exists.
Lyrics Anthony Newley, Jonthan Owusu-Yianomah, Kwesi Mills, Leslie Bricusse
The Wifely Person's Tip o'the Week
You can synch your old iPod to your new one.