2016 has been a particularly terrible year when it comes to the great minds we’ve lost. It is as if the year has held us and forced us to watch as Olympus crumbles, it’s pantheon pouring past us helplessly. And 2016 has taken yet another brilliant soul, Gene Wilder.
Gene Wilder was one of the most important people in my childhood. I grew up in a home where the title song from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” played constantly. Where I watched Andy Griffith and Gomer Pile go through clean life with a stiff upper lip and a good-natured attitude. I wanted all this and just though it was so alien.
Then, one day, a little video store opened up by my house. I was allowed to get a rental card and rent I did. I rode my bike up there two or three times a week and would blow my allowance watching as much as I could. The guy running the place started to catch on to my sense of humor and handed me some film from the seventies called “Blazing Saddles”. I liked cowboys, I liked comedy, I loved the guy from The Toy. I was sold.
In one particular scene, a character named Jim showed up and said this line, “You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.” I was sold. My ears perked. Who was this? I found out the actor was named Gene Wilder.
I started watching all his films. Young Frankenstein, The Frisco Kids, Stir Crazy, Willy Wonka, even his charming version of The Little Prince. I watched everything. And despite who was writing and what age or genre he performed in, he was always, unmistakably, Gene.
He was a man who taught me that there is so much joy and wonder and humor in the world. But at the same time he taught me that there is also darkness. Darkness which we can find, identify, and poke with a stick until there’s nothing left of it but a punchline.
His role in Blazing Saddles had him pointing out the moronic nature of bigotry. His role in Young Frankenstein had him pointing out the frustrations that come with trying to prove yourself to a world that doesn’t understand you in the first place. And Willy Wonka straight up taught me that sometimes kids can be monsters and having an adult like Gene tell me that made the bullies in my life seem impossibly silly.
He was an amazing person who saw the world as it was. Didn’t sugar coat it but still loved it. He took a young me, under his arm, without even realizing it and basically told me that the world was flawed, broken and silly thing that can either tear you down or be an inspiration for humor.
Wherever he is now, I hope he’s with Gilda and sitting somewhere where he can hear my thanks and know how much he meant to the world. Or just with Gilda. I’ll take either. Either way, thank you Gene. You were an inspiration.