“I don’t want my gravestone to say: ‘Willy Wonka lies here,’” said Gene Wilder to TV Guide in 2002, midway through his long war with lymphoma and 10 years before the Alzheimer’s diagnosis that took his life this week. Roald Dahl’s madman wasn’t him. It wasn’t even the kind of part he’d dreamed of playing. As an 11-year-old in Wisconsin, Wilder — then named Jerome Silberman — hoped he’d become a romantic leading man like his favorite actor, Cary Grant. Instead, he’d grown up to look like Gene Wilder, and Hollywood wasn’t ready for a lover boy who looked like that.
So Wilder kept himself busy (and out of his old $1.40-an-hour toy store job) making comedies. Though he’d never embrace the label “comedian,” he’d been making people laugh since he was 8, the year his mother Jeanne had a near-fatal heart attack and her doctor warned the child that if he ever argued with his mom again, she’d die. Wonka would shrug that “small boys are extremely springy and elastic.” But young Wilder was scarred by guilt. As he recounted in his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art (and elsewhere), he nervously kept his mom happy by mimicking Sid Caesar skits, written by the man who’d forever shape his career: Mel Brooks. When Jeanne sent him to a boarding school in California where he was beaten, molested, and inked with shoe polish on his privates, his letters home were cheerful lies. Everything was great, he insisted. She didn’t learn the truth until he came home for Christmas with bruises. He never went back to that school. Wilder stayed in Wisconsin wrapping bricks in washcloths because his mother liked to press them against her heart. Sometimes instead of bricks, she’d ask him to use his hands.
Wilder didn’t lose his virginity until Jeanne died. He was 23. He’d spent years overwhelmed by nervous attacks where he’d hide and pray for hours, sometimes eight hours at a time. Ironically, he called them “the Demon.” It wasn’t until he started therapy that he realized his mother’s illness had made him terrified of upsetting women, and that the chanting was his distraction. Then his therapist, Marjorie Wallis, whom he'd see off and on for the next four decades, asked how he’d come up with his stage name. Wilder was because of Thornton Wilder, he said. Gene was maybe because of this distant relative who’d fought in World War II. “And your mother’s name was?” Marjorie pressed. Oh.
You could argue that the slow-motion tragedy affected Wilder’s whole life, and you might be right, though human lives are rarely so tidy. “I got a false impression of women, that they were frail,” said Wilder to the San Antonio Light in 1982. “I had the feeling if I ever left a woman, she would die.” He channeled that panic into his film roles while trying to keep his personal life simple. He married the second girl he slept with, and when that failed, he reconnected with and married his childhood crush. That failed, too. He swore off lying, whether to protect people’s feelings or to protect himself. In interviews, he talked openly about his therapy sessions. He had that in common with Cary Grant, at least.
Wilder accepted the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory role with one condition: In his first scene, he insisted on hobbling on a cane and then surprising children with a somersault. He wanted people to know the candy baron was a liar. Wonka proved that the kid from The Producers was a star. Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, his next two movies with Mel Brooks, solidified it. They even made him — surprise! — a sex symbol, and he was flooded with letters from lonely women who saw the vulnerable blond as a man they could trust. He wrote a couple back, but their long-distance attachment to him just made their loneliness worse, so he stopped. But now that he could convince the studios to let him play a heartthrob, he wanted radical honesty in his career, too.
“After those two pictures, they kept sending me suggestions for Hot Saddles or Older Frankenstein,” sighed Wilder to the New York Times in 1975. “I am not a comedian.” The films he wanted to make were funny, sure, but also had “something more troubling, more romantic.”
He wrote, directed, and starred in strange, swoony comedies like The World’s Greatest Lover, Sunday Lovers, The Woman in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon. He claimed his anxious would-be lovers were 99 percent autobiographical, especially since those last two films costarred his new wife, Gilda Radner, whom he’d started an affair with during the filming of Hanky Panky while she was still married to Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith. During the drive to her first day on set, Radner sobbed in the car as she had a premonition that once she met Wilder, she’d fall in love with him and have to divorce her husband. She was correct.
Wilder and Radner had an intense relationship that the press rarely got right. In the summer of 1986, when they’d been married for two years, gossip columnist Liz Smith claimed Radner was pregnant. Actually, she’d had a miscarriage and was then diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Their marriage would have more sickness than health. Radner’s public battle dragged out for three years, and even then, her death was a shock to Wilder and the media, especially Us Magazine, which had the ill timing to publish “Right now Radner, 42, is well” the week she died.
Even when they were happy, Wilder and Radner weren’t a perfect fit. She was needy and loud where he was quiet and still — the opposite of his on-screen persona. “I wouldn’t say she was romantic,” added Wilder in Kiss Me Like a Stranger. “More like, ‘How’d you like to just stick your thing in here right now?’” Yet he was well-trained in taking care of fragile women, and after her death, he suffered being famously bereaved. Strangers continually shackled him with condolences. No matter what he was in the middle of, he was tugged on the sleeve and made to mourn.
“I wanted to be more of a human being,” he told the LA Times the year after Radner’s death. “I don’t want to do a tragic clown.” But audiences weren’t ready to see him romance someone else in that year’s Funny About Love, and the year after that, Another You, his fourth and final film with Richard Pryor, was a flop.
That was the end of his major film career. In the ’90s, studios no longer dared to make shock comedies like The Producers and Blazing Saddles, and they’d only muck up Young Frankenstein with special effects. Wilder did a few stage productions, some TV, but wound down his career. Goofy-looking Jerry Silberman had surfed an improbable wave, and it was time to get off the board. “I was trying too much to make you laugh, laugh, laugh, and then put an arrow through the heart,” admitted Wilder, as recounted in the book Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad. “If I’d dropped the 'arrow through the heart' part I would have been much better off.”
At least he was finally happy with his fourth wife, Karen, a speech pathologist whom he’d met while researching a role during the last year of Radner’s disease. (He claimed they kissed once, then avoided each other until after the funeral.) Falling in love with Karen was “like spring, seeing the buds after a winter,” said Wilder to TV Guide. The two spent two and a half decades drinking tea, painting watercolors, gardening, and passionately and steadily being each other’s rock. Instead of screenplays, Wilder began writing historical romances with names like The Woman Who Wouldn’t, My French Whore, Something to Remember You By, and What Is This Thing Called Love?
“Being with Gilda was like being with a shooting star. I don’t mean in terms of the shortness of her life — that, too — just trying to hold on to her,” added Wilder in that TV Guide interview. “Karen would have been who she would have picked out for me.”
We can’t pick our futures. Wilder spent most of his life wishing he was as well-known for his romantic dreams as that comic candy nightmare. Still, there’s a beauty in learning that he kept his Alzheimer’s diagnoses secret in part because of Willy Wonka’s fans. Wilder hated that a young kid could run up to say hi, only to have their parents scold them for pestering a dying man. He’d learned too soon about death; better to protect the next generation from the pain that defined him. After all, as Wonka would say, “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”