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.”).
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.
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.
Gene Wilder died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Aug. 29, 2016, at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 83. Take a look back at his legendary career in screen comedy.(Evan Agostini / Getty Images)
After small roles in films, including 1967’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” Wilder, left, starred alongside Zero Mostel and Lee Meredith in Mel Brooks’ 1968 comedy “The Producers.” Wilder was nominated for an Oscar for his performance.(Handout )
One of Wilder’s signature roles was as the eccentric title character, right, in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”(Handout)
Wilder, left, collaborated again with Brooks in the hit 1974 western spoof “Blazing Saddles,” which also starred Cleavon Little.(Warner Bros.)
The Brooks-Wilder hit machine continued with 1974’s smash “Young Frankenstein.” From left, Teri Garr, Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman and Mel Brooks, with Peter Boyle, prone, as Young Frankenstein.(file photo / Los Angeles Times)
Wilder poses in France with his wife, comedian Gilda Radner, during the 10th American Film Festival of Deauville on Sept. 7, 1984. Radner died in 1989.(Mychele Daniau / AFP/Getty Images)
“Star Trek” star-turned-director Leonard Nimoy, right, directed Gene Wilder in the 1990 Paramount comedy “Funny About Love.”(Kerry Hayes / Paramount Pictures)
Wilder, left, teamed with comedian Richard Pryor on several films, including “Silver Streak” (1976), “Stir Crazy” (1980), and, pictured, 1991’s “Another You.”(Myles Aronowitz / TriStar Pictures)
Wilder, standing, made a rare prime-time TV appearance on a 2002 episode of NBC’s “Will & Grace.”(Chris Haston / NBC)
Wilder released “Kiss Me Like A Stranger” in 2005. The memoir offered insights into Wilder’s love life, his work with stars such as Richard Pryor and Woody Allen and his fight with cancer.(MJ Kim / Getty Images)
Wilder received the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in Culture and Tourism at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., on April 9, 2008.(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)
Wilder’s wife, Karen Boyer, helps him apply sunblock at the 2014 U.S. Open Tennis Championship in Flushing Meadows, New York, in September 2014.(Andrew Gombert / European Pressphoto Agency)
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.”
St. Martin’s Press: 272 pp., $23.95