I don’t know about you, but I’ve been struggling to watch or read much of anything lately. My job usually entails watching films and TV (I know, I’m so lucky), but my mind, which is already unruly on the best of days, hasn’t been able to focus on a single episode or film in the days and weeks after October 7.
That is, until I watched “Remembering Gene Wilder.” In the new biopic about the iconic Jewish actor, I felt like I found my oasis of laughter and joy in a middle of a desert of grief. Wilder was just that: an almost miraculous being, so viscerally, instantaneously funny. Such a gift to the world. It’s hard to watch him without feeling a kind of primal joy. And the documentary is so well and warmly crafted.
In the first minutes of the film, you get to see Wilder’s frequent collaborator Mel Brooks and Carol Kane. The movie is narrated by Wilder himself, using audio from his 2005 memoir, “Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art“.
Wilder’s career was a series of unlikely triumphs, from “The Producers” to “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” to the now cult classic — but 1971 box office flop — “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” which immortalized him in the minds of many generations of kids as the equally charming and disturbing candy proprietor.
His personal life was a little less triumphant — he struggled to find love and lost his first wife, Gilda Radner, to ovarian cancer. But he did, later in life, find an absolute soulmate.
Director Ron Frank, a veteran filmmaker, ended up making this documentary through a connection from another great late Jewish star. He was working on the 2017 documentary “Remembering Leonard: His Life, Legacy and Battle with COPD,” about “Star Trek” actor Leonard Nimoy. The Nimoys, it turned out, were friends of the Wilders, and still close friends with Gene’s widow, Karen Boyer Wilder, who is such a lovely presences in this film.
While Frank never met Wilder, it does feel like he managed to distill his spirit perfectly, mostly by letting his voice, and the voices of those who loved him, lead the narrative. Aside from Kane and Brooks, there are many other familiarly conmorting voices — Alan Alda, Harry Connick Jr., Eric McCormack, who played Gene’s son on “Will & Grace” and Rain Pryor, Richard Pryor’s daughter, who speaks so movingly about her father’s complicated relationship with Wilder.
Frank is hoping that people who love Wilder will experience that joyful sense of nostalgia when watching “Remembering Gene Wilder,” and that it may spur them to discover more of his work, on film and beyond.
“Gene lived a very creative life that wasn’t just on the screen and acting,” the director told Kveller over Zoom. “He expressed himself every which way he could, writing, painting, even music, and he got out his creativity. And he was lucky enough to do it. I admire that — it’s something I aspire to myself.”
This movie isn’t all light, but for me it was such a needed balm. I talked to Frank about what making this movie meant to him, and about the long Jewish legacy of marrying laughter and tears.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What did Gene Wilder’s oeuvre mean to you?
The first time I saw Gene on the screen, I went to see “Blazing Saddles,” which knocked me off my seat. I mean, I was laughing so hard, and I was taken by him. I’d never seen him before and never really heard of him even though he had done “The Producers.” I didn’t see “Willy Wonka.” I was an older teenager at the time, and “Willy Wonka” really didn’t last long in the box office; it wasn’t a popular film. So “Blazing Saddles,” then followed by “Young Frankenstein,” were the two films that I saw Gene in and then felt like I got to know him after that.
Even watching the documentary, he made me laugh in such a primal way. There’s something so unique to his acting and his comedy — it almost feels like he’s not acting. It’s effortless.
It does seem way. He’s not really a comedian. He’s truly a comedic actor. Based on what I hear from other people, he wasn’t a joke teller. But he knew how to elicit a laugh. He studied acting — he was nose to the grindstone — and appeared in plays. I think he liked being on Broadway, probably even more than films at first. But he got hooked by films and then wanted to do his own, which he ended up doing.
Thinking of his collaboration with Mel Brooks, they represent such different Jewish worlds — Brooks comes from this recognizably Jewish Borscht Belt world of off-the-cuff comedy, and Gene… I feel like some people are still surprised when they find out he was Jewish, born Jerome Silberman.
Right. He wasn’t a Borscht Belt [comedian]. He’s a Milwaukee Jew. There’s a difference between New York Jews and Jews from the Midwest, I suppose. Still, he learned how to make people laugh because of his mother, and so he really learned well, from a young age.
What do you think being Jewish meant to Gene?
I don’t think Gene was a practicing Jew. His grandfather was president of his synagogue. His family went to synagogue on High Holidays. He went to Hebrew school, I believe, and had a number of Jewish friends. But he wasn’t noticeably religious, per se. He was not particularly drawn to Judaism, although you can see it in his acting, and certainly in “The Frisco Kid” [in which he played Polish rabbi Avram Belinski who befriends a bank robber, played by Harrison Ford]. He took that part in that role very seriously. He studied with a rabbi to get the accent right, and that happens to be one of my favorite movies of his — it’s a little bit of an undiscovered gem. A lot of people don’t know about it. And Gene, I think, did it just right. Not over the top. Not as a caricature — he just played it straight. Which is what he did with most of his roles, and that came out funny.
I love that when you get to the part about “The Frisco Kid” in the film, you bring up his dad, who was a Jewish immigrant, and how his sensibility, his innocence, affected Gene. Because part of his charm is that he brought that kind of charming, earnest, innocent sensibility to all of his roles.
Yeah, his father being a Russian Jew, and an innocent in many ways, really impacted that role. He had, I’d say, very typical Jewish parents.
It seems like they were very supportive, or at least in awe, of him.
I think so, eventually. Maybe less so at the beginning. I don’t know how his mother felt about his acting career. I mean, eventually, they all grew to appreciate him because of his success. I don’t know if he had the closest relationship with his dad. Maybe towards the end. I think he was closer to his mother. But I’m not the expert on that.
Were there any things that you were surprised to learn about Wilder as you delved into his life and career?
We didn’t know that he was going to be fired from “The Producers,” which would certainly have changed his career — you and I might not be talking about him — and then what Mel did to circumvent Joe Levine from firing him. That was interesting.
We did not put it in the film, but he got his acting career started by following his sister, Corinne. Corinne was older; she went to University of Iowa, Gene followed her there. He saw her there for first time on stage, doing a solo performance, and he was just taken by the whole experience. It was almost a religious experience for him. Then he started his own acting, went to the Actor’s Studio, and studied in New York, and with a lot of well-known folks back in that day, in the ’50s, and then got parts and started from there. But it was all thanks to his sister.
I think he was conflicted about his sexuality, about relationships with women. [Wilder was sexually abused as a child, which he discusses in his memoir.] He actually sought counseling. But he used a lot of that psychological study in the way he developed characters.
I was really struck by what he did in the army and how that shaped him — that made so much sense to me, and I didn’t know it.
Yes, he served in Pennsylvania, and he was stationed in an army hospital and dealing with people who were psychotic. He actually chose that intentionally. It also kept him near New York. So when he was on leave from the army, he would go to New York, see plays, take acting classes.
You did spend some time on his marriage to the late Gilda Radner — he was married to her for five years before her death from cancer in 1989. How did you navigate telling the story of their relationship?
We couldn’t tell the story of Gene Wilder without telling the story of his relationship with Gilda. And he does tell this freely in his book. It was a challenging relationship for him. It wasn’t the most idyllic, as many people might have assumed — that was surprising to me, too. She was, I think, a handful for him. Would they have continued their relationship if she hadn’t gotten sick? I don’t know, but he was certainly in love with her.
There was a bit of an age difference between them [Gene was 13 years older than Gilda]. Gene, when he come to hang out at “Saturday Night Live,” was an older guy. Everybody else at SNL was of a younger generation. He made it work, but I think that played a role.
We tried to be careful about this relationship. We didn’t obviously dwell on it too long. It’s a very tragic story. Our main goal was really to focus on Karen, because we had her around to tell the story and because he was married to her longer than anybody else. And he probably was most in love, at any time in his life, with Karen. I think that it showed based on what I’ve seen, in the photos and the footage and in all that Karen has told me herself — Karen’s a wonderful person.
She really seems that way, and there’s something so wonderful about this story of finding a true, peaceful kind of love later in life. When you first were talking to Karen about making this movie, what she really wanted to do was draw attention to Alzheimer’s, which Gene passed away from in 2016. Why was that important for you to touch on?
I mean, number one, it’s a terrible disease and and not just for the person who’s suffering from it, but for the family and support group around this experience. It’s interesting to focus on the caretaker, because I’ve heard about Alzheimer’s, but you don’t really hear much about what the caretakers go through. They’re the ones left holding everything at the end. Karen was extremely, extremely supportive. But she suffered a great deal. She told us it almost killed her. Taking care of it was probably a two year experience, all told, and I think it was very difficult. It was hard for her to talk about it but important, too.
You’ve worked on a lot of Jewish subjects. Why do you feel drawn to making art about Jewish stories and Jewish people?
Well, it could be partly my family history. My parents are survivors of the Holocaust. My whole family comes from Germany. I’m a first generation American. My father lived in Israel and fought in the Haganah.
One of my first documentaries on a Jewish topic was about the hunt for Adolf Eichmann, which we got because the Mossad gave us their file on the capture. We interviewed some agents that never spoke about it before. And so, from there, I was just hooked on doing stories from that part of the world. I like telling stories, and there’s certainly a lot of drama in Israel. I don’t have to tell you! There’s a lot of drama in World War II as well.
I was just attracting these kinds of stories in my life. My documentary about the Borscht Belt, the comedians there, was a real passion project for me. I got to meet all my heroes that I grew up with, and record them for posterity, and talk to them about the old days — Jerry Lewis, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller and Jackie Mason. I talked to all these folks about what it was like to start out. I wasn’t really concerned about their TV and Broadway careers, I was much more interested in the mountains and what it was like in the mountains. I’m working on a story now about antisemitism and hate crimes in this country — a far cry from Gene Wilder.
Yeah, not very uplifting!
Yeah, well, it’s important. The Jewish experience is a lot of laughter and tears — and that’s what I focused on a lot of my career.
Watching the documentary, I thought of that too. There’s a lot of darkness, of heaviness, but at the end of the day, Gene’s story is such a ray of light.
Sid Caesar told me something that I never forgot, which was that the secret to getting through life is to make fun of it — not take everything so seriously, even in the darkest moments. It’s true. That doesn’t mean you don’t recognize the pain, the loss, the sorrow. But we move on, we go on. So, you know, you might as well tell a joke while you’re walking down the long, eternal road as they say.
The phrase “am Israel chai” is like, we’re all still alive, and these jokes are all still alive, all these years later.
That’s right. A friend asked me, “You really think you should run a film about Gene Wilder now [after October 7] — it’s uncalled for,” and this kind of thing. I don’t accept that. Life is full of laughter and tears. If there’s some comfort that this film can offer people, at least to just not have to dwell on some pain for a while, why not? It doesn’t mean you ignore it or dismiss it. It just means that you don’t have to think about where it hurts you all of the time.
“Remembering Gene Wilder” opens at the 43rd Annual Philadelphia Jewish Film + Media FALL FEST on November 11