There Went Gene Wilder
As a boy growing up in 1960s Port Arthur, I was introduced to drive-in movies from the back seat at an early age. The Don Drive Inn not only was the area’s largest drive-in movie but had a kid’s playground in a grassy area right up under the huge towering west screen. The Don featured two screens, a major drive-in luxury; violent or raunchy movies were shown on the west screen as they couldn’t be seen from the highway, and Disneyish movies played on the east screen, you could almost watch a full scene on the east screen if you were passing by on the highway.
I was on those playground swings one evening when I heard a laugh and arching my neck looking up I saw that smiling face 35 feet high for the first time in my life. His character was sitting kidnapped in the backseat of Bonnie and Clyde’s getaway car, it was the actor Jerome Silberman of Milwaukee better known as Gene Wilder. Playing a frightened young undertaker kidnapped by the murderous duo in the 1967 film with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. It was my first impression of his nom de plume character: the highly-eccentric-entirely-loveable-soft-spoken-every-milquetoast-man plucked out of a humdrum existence into some wildly developing outrageous situation.
His smiling depictions of innocence, goodness and incorruptibility attached itself to my young DNA strands so that as time passed his every performance under the direction of Mel Brooks, acting with Richard Prior, Cleavon Little, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Terry Garr and others made such and impression on me, that one of my favorite comedic devices to this day is the good man caught up in a flurry of impossibly horrendous circumstances. Whether he was trying to survive his first days in prison with Richard Pryor or working to tame the animalistic impulses of his Frankenstein monster (Peter Boyle) the impish grin and wandering blue eyes of his characters always won out in the end and brought out the goodness in the sometimes not-so-nice characters around him.
And He was one of the good guys around Hollywood. Never heard or read of him in any sordid scandalous escapades. He loved and married four women, the most famous of which was Gilda Radner a fellow comedian and actress who passed away from cancer in 1989.
He lived, he loved, and he worked at what he loved. By doing so he touched our lives in countless meaningful ways that no single salute written by anyone can capture; all I’m left with at the end of this week is looking back at his life and career with a smile saying:
There went Gene Wilder