I was, perhaps, raised on a very strange comedy diet – for a child of the 80’s, anyway. (Thanks, mom!) As a kid under 12, my comedic friends were Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, George Burns, the Marx Brothers, Peter Sellers, Peter Cook – and, of course, Mel Brooks with his whole band of merry friends: Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Harvey Korman, Cloris Leachman, Gene Wilder.
Gene Wilder. Gene Wilder is dead.
His name encompassed his mad whimsy, y’know? Gene Wilder. I spent sick afternoons with him and Richard Pryor thwarting wiles while blind and deaf. I played with Gene a thousand times in his chocolate factory, with his deceptive limp, terrifying about-faces, spooky whimsy, and whimsical danger – and his warmth, generosity, and enchanting genius. I hung out playing chess with him and Cleavon Little at the town jail rather more often than a child should, but I turned out alright. And I cackled with mad glee right alongside him as he succumbed to his heritage and his genius in a Transylvanian castle.
I loved Gene Wilder the way a child loves their heroes. I’ve lived with him all my life. His films have been boon companions, always there to get me through – whether I needed to laugh just because or to creep back from some edge. I know his movies’ shapes, and how they fit inside me – and the space they fit into is labeled delight.
He lived a long and fruitful life, well-loved and well-celebrated. I’ll miss him – I know I didn’t know him as a person, but I knew him in the present tense.
Though I cannot begrudge him leaving us, I absolutely can mourn the disease that shadowed his last years. The same disease that robbed the world of Terry Pratchett much too soon. Gene Wilder died from complications due to Alzheimer’s. Can no one rid us of this troublesome disease? There have been some breakthroughs – and I encourage everyone who wishes to make a donation in Wilder’s memory, to do so to a charity targeting Alzheimer’s research, e.g. Cure Alzheimer’s Fund. Let’s science Alzheimer’s to death.
And let’s remember Gene Wilder as a man about whom his family could sincerely say: “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.” Well. He doesn’t have to worry about that. He’ll always help so many of us smile.
Thank you, Gene.
Note: Photo above by Steve Wood.