Are we born the person we become or are we made by the events that follow? I know that “a little of both” is waffling on the nature versus nurture question, but who really thinks waffles are a bad thing? Excuse me. There’s something I want to discuss but I’m trying to avoid it at the same time. Let me start over.
In different interviews, such as one he gave on Inside The Actors’ Studio or this one for PBS Gene Wilder credited his mother with turning him into an actor, although indirectly. She had a heart attack when he was seven or eight and her doctor told Gene that if he got angry with his mother it could kill her, “but try to make her laugh.”
Maybe that’s why he was so perfect for roles ranging from The Frisco Kid to The Waco Kid, and more than one generation grew up with Wilder as Willy Wonka. In his roles he was so often a man tap dancing on the edge, and sometimes he kept dancing even as he toppled over and went spinning into empty space. Then there were his collaborations with Richard Pryor, where the two played off each others’ weaknesses, turning them into strengths. But was Wilder made into an actor by the trauma he shared with his mother or was it simply the spark that ignited something that was already there?
No actor, especially one whose played such diverse roles as Gene Wilder, can be summed up by a single role, but in addition to being one of my favorite movies–one that always makes me laugh–Young Frankenstein, which was originally Wilder’s idea and co-written with Mel Brooks, seems to me the most personal of Wilder’s films. Frederick Frankenstein is born into an infamous family, seemingly fated by his decision to become a doctor to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps, and yet fate isn’t enough–a whole series of events and characters push or drag him to his destiny. And Gene Wilder runs the whole range, playing straight in one scene and funny in the next, going from morose to manic and around again, always terrified but focused on giving life.