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Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. (Warner Bros.)
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. (Warner Bros.)


Gene Wilder was a comedic master who always kept us guessing Add to ...

In the review of 1977’s The World’s Greatest Lover, a Globe and Mail film critic noted that Gene Wilder was attempting to refine his filmmaking approach by combining comedy and romance in a single scene rather than keeping them separate, as he had in previous films. To the mind of the Globe writer, the technique did not work. “All Wilder does is destroy the focus,” he assessed. “The audience doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry.”

But that he kept us guessing, wasn’t that Mr. Wilder’s brilliance? The actor/writer/director, who died Monday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at age 83, often portrayed a hysteric who toggled between crazed anxiety and soft-focus gentleness. As a comedian, he was deadpan one moment, mischievous the next.

Mr. Wilder himself got to the matter of ambiguity in his 2005 memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. In 1971, Mr. Wilder was considering whether to take the titular role in Mel Stuart’s fantasy-musical Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, an adaptation of a Roald Dahl novel. When Mr. Stuart visited Mr. Wilder at his home, the actor explained to him what he had in mind for the character.

“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself. But I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”

Mr. Stuart, whose first film was the Oscar-nominated Four Days in November, a 1964 documentary about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, couldn’t fathom why Mr. Wilder was insisting on such a curious opening scene.

“Because from that time on,” Mr. Wilder told the director, “no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

And so it went.

From the archives: Seven questions with Gene Wilder

Besides his great frizzy-haired freakouts – his temper tantrum over a blue blanket in Mel Brooks’s The Producers in 1968 was the first in a career of classic overanxious moments – Mr. Wilder worked the quiet side just as well. He was a maestro when it came to subtle facial expressions and wordless pauses. In Woody Allen’s uproarious Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) from 1972, Mr. Wilder played a doctor confronted with an Armenian shepherd who took liberties with Daisy, a comely member of his flock.

For 25 onscreen seconds, Mr. Wilder considers the unexpected bestiality admission. His eyes dart this way and that way, as if searching for a hidden camera or suspecting a prank. Where a Soupy Sales or a lesser actor might have simply done a spit-take, Mr. Wilder says nothing for what many would consider an eternity as he considers the weirdness. “Ah-ha, I see,” is all he finally says.

To those who grew up watching movies in the 1970s and 80s, Mr. Wilder was a dynamic comedic companion. His outlandish collaborations with Mr. Brooks blew minds – nobody song-and-danced with a monster with more straight-faced suaveness than Mr. Wilder in Young Frankenstein – and his buddy films with Richard Pryor were the Bing-and-Bob movies of a generation.

Mr. Wilder will be remembered for his onscreen moments of excitability, but there was always fragility within the frazzle, with his over-the-top reactions playing real. “If the physical thing you’re doing is funny,” he once said, “you don’t have to act funny while doing it.”

A lesson from a master.

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