writing

good day, sir, and thank you

photo by STEVE WOOD

Photo by Steve Wood (1979)

Gene Wilder is gone. To be fair, we hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him in a good long while and I admit he had slipped my mind. Though every now and then I tend to gravitate towards some YouTube clip from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Young Frankenstein. It’s like I have this innate need to look into his sparkling eyes, into a child-like face grounded in a bottomless sense of wisdom and a devilish grin.

That frizzy, cumulus of hair always trying to lift off from his head. That perfect sense of timing. Those moments of gravitas that flip into silliness and back again. How can you not love that? How can you not need that in this world?

I cried when I heard the news that he had passed. There was always something special about him. A comedic Buddah, smiling with his eyes – so gently. I never met him but feel his loss. Even in a year when we lost two great magical musical heroes: Bowie and Prince, Wilder’s death still hit closer to home. Like a favorite uncle you never visited enough but dearly love all the same.

Of course, Willy Wonka was a huge part of my 70’s childhood. The movie itself was a wonderland for my senses: the moralizing, ridiculous-looking Oompa Loompas, the giant candy land and dangerously surreal boat ride (that haunted my dreams and sparked my morbid fascination with horror movies.) But it was all fueled and enriched by Wilder’s performance – both mischievous imp and mysterious wizard. It takes hundreds of people to launch a movie – but even though he didn’t write the screenplay or the songs or choose the actors or direct the scenes – Wilder brought the movie to Technicolor life with his unique artistry.

That song (which needs no introduction) – sung in a slightly unsteady warble with tenderness and love for children but also an undercurrent of sadness and unease about the human condition – still kills me. He reminds us of that sense of Wonder that we seem to have lost along the way. There is no one else in the world who could have infused that part with so much pathos.

And then there was his achingly, tragically short love affair with another special soul, Gilda Radner. I was young when she was taken by ovarian cancer but still could palpably feel his grief at being torn apart from her. I like to think Gene and Gilda are having a helluva reunion, tap-dancing to their own crazy rhythm on the Milky Way and then blowing raspberries at the sun.

It’s funny how a stranger can affect you so much just by the work they’ve put out into the world. All I know about him are his movies and now countless blog posts and magazine articles. Surely they only scratch the surface of another complex, nuanced, flawed human being. But I don’t care – what Gene put into the world mattered. That was real and can never be taken away from me – or any of us – as long as we still believe in a world of pure imagination.

(Credit where credit is due: I stole the idea of using Wonka’s cold parting remark to Charlie as this post title from my ol’ theater pal, Bill Ratliff. When I saw that line in my Facebook feed, that’s when the tears first started rolling.)

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