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Gene Wilder's memoir "Kiss Me Like a Stranger": frank and charming

Gene Wilder's memoir "Kiss Me Like a Stranger": frank and charming
Gene Wilder poses as he signs copies of his autobiography "Kiss Me Like A Stranger" in London in 2005. (MJ Kim / Getty Images)

Gene Wilder, the star of classic films including "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Young Frankenstein," has died at age 83. Here is a 2005 review of his memoir from The Times:

Gene Wilder's frank, charming memoir, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger," is refreshingly free from the two major sins of show-biz autobiographies: self-aggrandizement and score-settling. Oh, he tosses a few zingers at Carol Channing for her diva-like behavior during a summer tour of "The Millionairess," and he isn't terribly nice to his first wife. But none of the stories he tells about others are nearly as embarrassing as his cheerful recollections of the questions he was afraid to ask when buying his first condom ("I mean, exactly when do you put it on and do you ask the woman for help and when do you take it off?"), or of a less-than-torrid extramarital affair ("I guess you could have counted to seven or eight, and then boom.").

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Apparently, someone whose most memorable roles have been as neurotic nebbishes doesn't mind sharing humiliating youthful moments, none of which would be out of character for his Leo Bloom in "The Producers" or Dr. Frankenstein (which he pronounced "Frahnkenshteen") in "Young Frankenstein." Seven years of therapy probably helped: Wilder's first chapter begins as he walks nervously into psychiatrist Marjorie Wallis' Manhattan office in 1962, and the sessions with her become a framework for his account of his early life and career. A device that could have been cringe-inducing works remarkably well, with Wallis serving as a blunt Greek chorus ("your marriage stinks") who helps Wilder sort out, in particular, his complicated feelings about his chronically ill mother, whose suffering made him feel guilty about ever being happy.

Add a few years of Stanislavsky-based training and you begin to understand why Wilder's funniest performances exude a whiff of melancholy. "Make it real" was the imperative instilled by Method high priest Lee Strasberg, and Wilder carried it with him into comedy. It's amusing, and revealing, to learn that he used the memory of his shivering little dog for the hilarious scene in "The Producers" when he goes berserk because Zero Mostel has snatched his blue "blankie." You believe Wilder when he confides that he got hired for "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex" because Woody Allen needed "an actor who could believably fall in love with a sheep and play it straight." Details about his second marriage and a difficult relationship with a stepdaughter reveal insecurities and neediness that Wilder, like any good actor, used in his work.

But when it comes to neediness, no one could top Wilder's third wife, comedian Gilda Radner, whose exuberant, exhausting personality dominates the book's three most interesting chapters. Radner was, he writes, "the most generous and compassionate and original person I had ever known." She was also a "clinging baby pulling at my shirt sleeve every minute." It's tough to be honest about a popular star who died prematurely, but Wilder makes palpable both his love and his exasperation as Radner battled ovarian cancer and, like many terminally ill people, vented her pain and rage on those closest to her. When he explodes, "just get off of yourself! I don't know how to help you any more than I'm doing," he's venting not just his own frustration but that of anyone who's ever been in the unbearable situation of watching someone they love die without the well-scripted grace of a Hollywood movie. Wilder's nuanced portrait of Richard Pryor similarly balances the pleasures of working with a comic genius against the aggravation of dealing with a mercurial, often hostile -- and while working on "Stir Crazy," drug-crazed -- individual.

If this all sounds awfully serious, be assured that Wilder tells plenty of entertaining stories about his work with everyone, including Jerome Robbins, Mike Nichols, Mel Brooks and Zero Mostel.

"Kiss Me Like a Stranger" is as witty a memoir as you're likely to get from a 71-year-old survivor of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. It's also a reflective and well-written meditation on the life of someone who has more on his mind than the next big part or belly laugh.

*

Wendy Smith is the author of "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

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Gene Wilder

St. Martin's Press: 272 pp., $23.95

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