What Gene Wilder meant to me

Matt Poe

For most people of my generation, the name Gene Wilder probably doesn’t ring a bell. But if I showed you a picture of the man, you’d more than likely recognize the curly haired, blue-eyed actor who portrayed Willy Wonka in the 1971 film adaptation “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Wilder passed away on Monday at the age of 83 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. His mark on comedy and film is one that I believe is vastly underrated to many under the age of 40.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Wilder could hit just about every comedic note in the book.

In the case of Willy Wonka, he portrayed the sarcastic and bored chocolate tycoon with brilliant nuisance. The role he is probably most fondly remembered for.

I encourage you to go find some of his other roles in which he often collaborated with the brilliant writer and director Mel Brooks.

In “Young Frankenstein,” he played an erratic madman hell-bent on bringing his grandfather back to life in the parody of the classic Mary Shelley novel. In another Brooks collaboration, “The Producers,” he plays an accountant who helped to produce a self-sabotage play known as “Springtime for Hitler.”

My personal favorite role of Wilder’s is undoubtedly “Blazing Saddles,” a Western movie he stars in as the once-famous Waco Kid, the fastest shooter east of the Mississippi, down-on-his-luck alcoholic who aides the sheriff in ridding the town of Rock Ridge from a lackluster group of rustlers, cutthroats, murders, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs and thugs.

He would go on to star in several movies with the legendary Richard Pryor, but his works with Brooks were his best. It’s hard to think of one actor without thinking of the other. Wilder and Brooks. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Shaq and Kobe Byrant. The two were a comedy force to be reckoned with.

There’s an old, unofficial saying in my household that I can remember since I first saw one of Brooks’ movie: If ever you’re having a bad day, watch a Mel Brooks movie, particularly one with Wilder. It’s damn near impossible to not laugh or smile upon doing so, and it’s a form of therapy I highly recommend.

My favorite Wilder moment? The closing scene of “Blazing Saddles,” where Wilder asks Sheriff Bart, played by the late Cleavon Little, where he intends to go next.

“Nowhere special,” Little tells him.

“Nowhere special. I always wanted to go there,” Wilder casually replies.

While the Waco Kid may have not gone anywhere special, Wilder certainly did. He was special. He did something special with his life, and I like to think he’s somewhere special now.

Matt Poe is a columnist for The Kent Stater, contact him at [email protected]