I no longer recall the details, but it was on a late-night talk show, probably in the 80’s, where a comedian pulled out a ten-spot and asked, “Why is Gene Wilder on Canada’s $10 bill?” I’ve never forgotten that.
Had someone told me last month that Gene Wilder was 83, I would have wagered a week’s pay, confident in the knowledge that there was no way he was that old. I would have bypassed Google and Siri, basking in certainty, assure of my conviction.
And I would have lost.
When did this happen?
Have I been asleep, adrift in a self-induced coma, or perhaps embracing the early stages of dementia? It’s hard to fathom that Gene Wilder reached 83 years of age, before departing this earth.
My first recollection of Gene was watching Blazing Saddles on the big screen as a kid. I’ve never forgotten the magic and wonder of being surrounded by belly laughing adults, basking in their cigarette fog, enamoured and consumed by the antics of Gene and the gang. While some of the more salacious humour was beyond my 11-year old comprehension, the visual stimulation was riveting. I can still envision Gene’s face on-screen, twenty feet high, his ice-blue eyes, the bluest I’d ever seen, hair like dreadlocks – the Waco Kid, in all his glory. He was my hero, the guy I rooted for.
In later years as I entered adulthood, Blazing Saddles was along for the ride. From the television network debut (where they mass-edited everything, including the famous campfire flatulence scene), to my first copy on VHS to DVD to Blu-ray, I’ve owned them all.
From there came another Mel Brook’s extravaganza, Young Frankenstein, featuring Gene at his comic best. From his delivery of one-liners, to his intense close-ups, to the raw emotion he emitted in every scene, the movie was comedic gold.
Equally hilarious and tops on my list was Stir Crazy, co-starring Richard Prior, a virtual side-splitter from start to finish. Prior and Wilder made a fantastic team with Gene as the primary catalyst, drawing upon his talent and timing, his spontaneous utterances and gestures, captivating viewers.
While I never saw Willy Wonka in its entirety until five years ago, after viewing Johnny Depp’s version, I sought out the original and was not disappointed. Perfectly cast for the role, Wilder gave a memorable performance, his charisma, charm and exuberance, dominating the film. It’s no wonder millions, to this day, still identify Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. That same year while Christmas shopping, I happened upon the 40th Anniversary Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory Ultimate Collector’s Edition Box Set, and scooped it up. After hearing about Gene’s death, I pulled it out of hibernation. It was never opened, and now, never will be.
There are a dozen other films worthy of mention, but I won’t do them justice, so I’ll end here.
Eighty-three years old.
Not a bad age.
Gene Wilder shared his gift of comedy with the world, leaving us with memories of a simpler, carefree time, when laughter was without conscious, without restraint. I find it curious as I get older, of all the events, moments and experiences I’ve long since forgotten, some of the most seemingly insignificant memories, remain intact.
Why is that?
Perhaps that’s why he was on the Canadian $10 bill.
To remind me not to take life too seriously. To encourage me to laugh every now and again.
That has to be it.
Thank you, and bon voyage… Mr. Fronken-steen.