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The Sublime Weirdness of Gene Wilder

A brief look back at a strange, wondrous career

Getty Images
Getty Images

As a child, and teenager, and young adult, and much older adult with juvenile tendencies, you immediately love Blazing Saddles for the one very obvious reason. Let’s just embed it. We all need the laugh.

Sixty seconds of fart noises. Amazing. Timeless. Genuinely, stupefyingly hilarious. You need the laugh because Gene Wilder is dead, at 83, as his family announced this afternoon. He’s the reason you come to love Blazing Saddles when you get ever-so-slightly more sophisticated.

What still truly resonates about Mel Brooks’s brash, anarchic, ingeniously silly 1974 slapstick Western is much quieter and more elegant, not to mention rarer. It’s the easy, cheerily unforced rapport that Wilder, starring as fallen alcoholic gunslinger the Waco Kid, brings to his scenes with Cleavon Little, starring as Bart, a wayward frontier town’s unlikely and profoundly chill sheriff. Their finest moments together take place in the jailhouse, alone and unhurried and remarkably mellow for a movie that ends in total meta-comedy mob chaos. “A man drink like that and he don’t eat, he is going to die,” Little offers, and Wilder serves up a master class in high-comic nonchalance, all wrapped around a single word: “When?”

Wilder immediately does it again: “Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me … Jim.” Beneath a wild, asymmetrical, unforgettable Dick Tracy–villain haircut, his eyes are playfully bright and terribly sad; he licks his lips with Shakespearean import. His origin story, compact and deadly serious, crests with the line, “Little bastard shot me in the ass.” He is vibrating at a low, weird, absurdly winsome frequency, and when he hooks up with Little, their bond feels chemical, elemental, unprecedented, unbreakable.

Your instinct is to cherish this, and cling to it, in a movie rife with both shameless potty humor and repeated instances of the N-word. (“Are we awake?” is Little’s first question for the Waco Kid. “We are not sure,” the Waco Kid responds. “Are we … black?”) Blazing Saddles’ racial politics are a singular combination of progressive and regressive — “Excuse me while I whip this out” — but Wilder and Little blow right past it, with a gentle nonchalance and infectious affection that feels human in a way that isn’t the slightest bit dated. Approximately 500,000 people have shared this brief, essential clip on Twitter in Wilder’s honor in the past few hours; try not to crack up. Little himself couldn’t manage it.

Blazing Saddles is part of Wilder’s god-mode run, which takes in two more Mel Brooks classics — the 1968 high-wire cult classic The Producers (another wildly offensive romp that its star somehow grounds in humane charisma) and 1974’s peerless Young Frankenstein. But it might peak with 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, where you can imagine only one man in the starring role. Many oblivious and frankly unattractive young people will know Wilder’s face only from the Condescending Wonka meme, but try to take the compliment: Here, too, he has a very specific face and aura, a sui generis mixture of childish delight and acidic volatility. Oh, so you don’t think old movies are funny? Tell me more! I remember exactly one line from this film, and that’s “You STOLE Fizzy Lifting Drinks,” from Wonka’s climactic freakout, in which he vacillates between loopy villain and far, far loopier sorta-hero. He is terrifying and electrifying all at once. (“You! Get! NOTHING!”) You want to scream and run away from him, directly into his arms.

Perhaps, though, you prefer him in Woody Allen’s 1972 farce Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, in which Wilder responds to the line, “I am in love with a sheep,” with 24 seconds of glorious, befuddled silence. His multi-film rapport with Richard Pryor was likewise incredible, peaking with 1980’s Stir Crazy, a prison farce that might make for a fine comedown off The Night Of. Wilder’s filmography — and bibliography, spanning from novels to his 2005 autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art — is a rabbit hole worth plunging down, starting right now. It’s the rare rabbit hole that qualifies as a true rabbit hole in the Lewis Carroll sense, deep and disquieting and all-enveloping and wondrous. No fart joke could ever compete.