Gene Wilder was the kind of comic master you have to lose to appreciate.
We lost him a decade ago – or more. He briefly did a cartoon voice in 2015. And a couple episodes of “Will and Grace” (And nothing before that since 1999.)
But we’ve spent the 21st century without him. Illness took him from us.
God I missed him.
I know how much people will – and should – rhapsodize over “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” But it was Wilder as the consummate second banana I loved so much: Wilder with Cleavon Little in Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles”; with Richard Pyror in “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy”; and with Zero Mostel in Brooks’ “The Producers.” He could go over the top in hysteria and still seem like Mostel’s second banana. (No one dared try to steal scenes from Mostel; you’d wind up on his lunch plate next to the blintzes, swimming in sour cream.)
The last thing in the world Richard Pryor would ever have copped to was doing fear-filled variations of Stephin Fetchit or Willie Best or Mantan Moreland. And yet that’s what he did sometimes. But when he had Gene Wilder being glorious next to him in “Stir Crazy” and “Silver Streak,” no one noticed, much less cared. They were just that funny together.
And when he went off on his own, he’d banked so much audience love that everyone pulled for him anyway.
His third of four wives was Gilda Radner who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder became committed to early cancer detection for the rest of his life and to the support group Gilda’s Club.
If Gilda Radner loved him so much in her lifetime – which she did –who were any of the rest of us to argue?
Wilder finally died of Alzheimer’s disease on Monday.
Movies, tragically, lost him long, long ago.