Of all the genres of entertainment, comedy is the one that is most truly subjective. Either you find something funny and it jives with your sense of humor, or you don't.
But regardless of one's taste in comedy, it's hard to imagine someone not having a place in their laugh-loving heart for Gene Wilder, the Milwaukee-born comedy legend and big screen star of "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein" who sadly passed away today at the age of 83 due to complications with Alzheimer's disease, according to Variety.
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship. — Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
For myself, I feel as though I can trace my sense of humor and love of comedy on film through Wilder's performances and roles – from watching "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory" as a kid before building up to "Young Frankenstein" and then eventually maturing enough to see "Blazing Saddles." And in each one – and so, so many more, from "The Producers" to "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy" – Wilder was such an indelible, playful and genuinely brilliant presence on screen, able to score massive laughs by going delightfully crazed and explosively manic just as well as he could by going quietly sarcastic and subtly cutting.
But whether he was going big or small, there was always a deeply felt sense of tender humanity under it all. There's a reason why, despite his character probably killing multiple children, freaking out at our soft-spoken protagonist and serving as a shrieking tour guide on a cruise through hell in "Willy Wonka," we still manage to feel genuinely warmed by his sincere love and true appreciation for Charlie Bucket at the end of the film. Somehow, through all the hysterical screams and goofiness in his roles, behind the gears clearly churning in his characters' eyes, there was always a compassionate person at the heart of them all, and he didn't just convey that through the screen. It radiated deep into your heart and mind – all while making you guffaw like a crazy person.
That inherent goodness beamed into the real world as well, where Wilder was an active advocate for cancer awareness and treatment, as well as helping found both the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Cancer in Los Angeles and Gilda's Club, a community organization for those struggling with cancer and their loved ones – named in honor of his wife and comedic partner, "SNL" star Gilda Radner, who died of the ailment while the two were married in 1989.
The last time Wilder appeared on the big screen was more than two decades ago, in 1991's "Another You" – also the last movie role for his regular equally iconic partner in comedy, Richard Pryor. Since then, the actor willfully retreated into more writing projects and a few assorted TV appearances. When asked by Time Out New York just last year about his retirement from the movies, Wilder said, "I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, 'Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.' But I don’t get anything like that."
Despite his long late-career on-screen absence, though, Wilder's always felt like a part of the past that feels always and constantly present. I was born just a year before Wilder's retirement, and yet he still is a crucial part of developing my sense of humor and my love of film. For many other movie lovers both casual and crazed born and raised during that time, the actor is still deeply and eternally etched into their essential film memories, a joyful and hilarious part of why they love the movies as well as a fountain of great movie quotes and lines.
I know people who grew up in and around his heyday would almost universally agree, and I don't doubt generations far off into the future will also find their way to film and comedy through the genius of Gene Wilder – gone but most certainly never to be forgotten.
Here just a few choice clips of Wilder's most memorably work:
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.