Monday, August 29, 2016
When I heard today that Gene Wilder had died, the first thing I thought of was the first time I saw him in a movie.
The movie was "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," which must have been at least a few years old when I saw it because I saw it at one of those free movies on summer Wednesdays in my hometown of which I have written here before. My hometown was much smaller in those days, and the merchants always sponsored free movies for the kids of the town on Wednesdays in the summer. My hometown is much larger now, and I'm sure free movie Wednesdays stopped many years ago.
It was also, as I wrote here a few years ago, the first time my brother was permitted to go to a movie without one or both of my parents — or one of our grandparents — in attendance. I was drafted to fill in, to keep an eye on him, as it were.
There were moments when I was distracted from what was happening on the screen, usually when I was checking to see what my brother was doing (and it usually wasn't much). I probably didn't miss a lot. Those free movies were never first–run movies, anyway. The merchants in my hometown were generous as long as it didn't cost too much so the free summer movies were always three or four years old — if you were lucky. In those pre–cable days, most movies that had made the rounds of the theaters were retired. The only ones that remained in circulation were the ones that TV stations and networks wanted to show.
Those free summer movies were probably among the last ways that producers and promoters could make money on many movies before they were put out to pasture. Undoubtedly they took whatever they could get.
"Willy Wonka" was the offering one Wednesday afternoon one summer, and that was when I first saw Gene Wilder. I have seen him in many movies since — "Young Frankenstein" is my favorite — but he has always been Willy Wonka to me and always will be, no matter how many times I see him in "The Producers" or "Blazing Saddles" or "Silver Streak" or anything else.
I guess, too, that I always remember him as the husband and widower of Gilda Radner, perhaps the finest comedienne of her generation, certainly one of the brightest lights in Saturday Night Live's brilliant original cast.
I thought of something else when I heard that Wilder had died.
I thought of a moment from All In The Family. It was an episode in which Archie's work buddy, Stretch Cunningham, had died, and his family wanted Archie to say a few words at the funeral.
During his eulogy, Archie observed, in his unique way, that studies showed that "having the blues" took years from your life while laughter added years to your life. If that is true, Archie said, Stretch put years on his life.
"And you gotta love a guy," Archie said, "for that."
Gene Wilder put some years on my life.