I recently had the great honor to interview Gene Wilder. He was in Atlanta to visit his wife, Karen Webb’s, grown-up children who had moved South to work for Turner.
Wilder is an original — quite possibly the most unique comic actor of his time. He was pummeled by Zero Mostel in “The Producers,” kidnapped by Warren Beatty in “Bonnie and Clyde,” rode West (in Rabbinical whiskers) with Harrison Ford in “The Frisco Kid,“ played Donald Sutherland’s mismatched twin in “Start the Revolution Without Me” (a great 4th of July choice even if it is about the French Revolution) and brought Peter Boyle to life in “Young Frankenstein.”
A gentle man with a quiet (and decidedly quirky) sense of humor, Wilder is also a born story-teller. One of his favorites is how he agreed to play the title role in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”
Wilder insisted he make his entrance hobbling on a cane. Then he seems to lose control of it, falls forward and executes a perfect somersault. “After that,” he explained to the aghast fillmakers, ”no one will ever know if I’m telling the truth or not.”
Now in his mid-70s, Wilder has turned his attention to writing and has produced an exquisite pair of novels, almost Chekhovian in their astutely humorous observation of human nature. One is “My French Whore,” set during World War I; the other is “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” which takes place at a turn-of-the-century sanitarium where one of the other patients is … Anton Chekhov.
Both read like screenplays for a Gene Wilder movie. Which is to say, they are very good reads.