Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Leo Bloom, Willy Wonka, the Waco Kid and Dr. Frederick Frankenshteen (1933-2016)

On Sunday Mayo and Dublin will meet in Dublin’s Croke Park to decide the All-Ireland Senior Gaelic Football championship. I have a rooting interest in Mayo, but I am not getting my hopes up. In recent years the western county has been a regular participant in the All-Ireland but has consistently disappointed. Dublin seem consistently insurmountable. The last time Mayo won the All-Ireland Éamon de Valera was Ireland’s taoiseach, Clement Attlee was prime minister of Britain (soon to hand the reins back to Winston Churchill), George VI sat on the throne in London, Harry S. Truman was president of the United States, and people even as old as myself had not yet been born.

As always, the match is a sell-out. People who cannot get tickets but do not want to watch it at home have the option of watching it on in the open air on a large screen in the Smithfield area of Dublin. It will be preceded by a screening of the 1971 movie Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in tribute to Gene Wilder, who died August 29 at the age of 83.

That Wilder would honored this way in the midst of one of the most important days the Irish experience as a community speaks volumes about the esteem in which he is held here. You do not meet people in this country who do not have warm childhood memories of watching Willy Wonka on television on Christmas Day. My own kid has always adored the curly-haired comic actor (as it happens, she shares his birthday), and she has never had time for the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. She was devastated when word of his passing hit her social media.

Milwaukee-born Wilder had a couple of connections to Ireland. His character in Mel Brooks’s The Producers, Leo Bloom, was a clear nod to James Joyce. Three years later he would play the title character in the Irish movie Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in The Bronx, directed by the Indian-born British filmmaker Waris Hussein, the very first director of the Doctor Who TV series. One of Wilder’s co-stars in Quackser was David Kelly, who 35 years later would play the grandfather in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Most of us probably remember Wilder’s first big-screen role as the one in The Producers, a part he got because of his friendship with Anne Bancroft, his co-star in the play Mother Courage and Her Children and who was the girlfriend (later wife) of Mel Brooks. Shortly before the Brooks film, however, he was seen in a small role in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, as a kidnapped undertaker.

To honor Wilder in our own house we went looking for the Willy Wonka DVD but failed to find it. So instead we watched The Producers and Blazing Saddles. Those years, when Brooks and Wilder and their collaborators were at their peak in the late 1960s and the 1970s, were a golden age of smart, raucous, provocative comedy. In addition to the Brooks films (and let us not forget the best of the bunch, which Wilder co-wrote, Young Frankenstein), there was the 1970 Bud Yorkin period comedy Start the Revolution Without Me, in which he and Donald Sutherland played two sets of partially-switched-at-birth twins on the eve of the French Revolution, and the 1976 Arthur Hiller buddy comedy Silver Streak, which paired Wilder with Richard Pryor. That very successful partnership (promptly reprised in 1980’s Stir Crazy) might have happened earlier. Pryor had been a co-writer on Blazing Saddles and had intended the role of the sheriff for himself, only to see Cleavon Little cast in the part.

Among Wilder’s many comic roles, he played a Polish rabbi in the Old West, opposite Harrison Ford, in Robert Aldrich’s 1979 movie The Frisco Kid. He also had a couple of animal roles in live action movies. In Stanley Donen’s 1974 musical adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, he played The Fox. In a 1999 TV version of Alice in Wonderland, he played the Mock Turtle, amid a cast that included Robbie Coltrane, Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd, Pete Postlethwaite, Martin Short, Peter Ustinov and George Wendt.

As a director, Wilder helmed four feature films. The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother featured Brooks regulars Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman and Dom DeLuise. The World’s Greatest Lover paired him with Carol Kane. The Woman in Red co-starrred Kelly LeBrock in the title role and introduced us to the Stevie Wonder song “I Just Called to Say I Love You.” It also featured in a supporting role Wilder’s co-star from Sidney Poitier’s 1982 comedy/thriller Hanky Panky, Gilda Radner, who at the time had been married to frontman/guitarist G.E. Smith of the Saturday Night Live band. Soon after the release of The Woman in Red, Wilder and Radner married and starred in his final directorial effort, Haunted Honeymoon. Three years after that film’s release, Radner would be dead from ovarian cancer at the age of 42. Wilder wrote candidly about all of it and much more in his wonderfully titled 2005 memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger.

Wilder continued to work after Radner’s death but never seemed that visible. He re-teamed with Pryor in the comedies See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You and starred in the mid-1990s sitcom Something Wilder. He also played amateur sleuth Cash Carter in a couple of TV movies and made a couple of appearances on Will & Grace.

In interviews and in his performances, Gene Wilder gave every indication of being a kind and gentle and reflective soul. He will be missed—even while we continue to enjoy his many performances preserved forever in films and television.

Life moves on, however, and we do have Sunday’s match to look forward to. I see in the local newspaper that a Mayo farmer from Keenagh has gotten into the spirit by dyeing his sheep in the county’s colors, green and red. And speaking of sheep, we should not forget that another memorable Gene Wilder performance was as a doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask. He tries to help an Armenian shepherd with his ovine obsession, only to become besotted with the sheep himself. The scene with Wilder hitting rock bottom on Skid Row guzzling a bottle of Woolite is priceless.

-S.L., 16 September 2016

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