Gene Wilder: Writer, Actor, Director, Painter

Delve into the mind of a quiet genius. Within it you will find an entire world of thought, creativity, and power.  How true that is for the mind of Gene Wilder!  We all know him by his roles in the films Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein among a host of others.  However, these are but a few colors on the creative pallet of Gene Wilder’s career.Gene is an accomplished stage actor, has written for the screen and directed.  He has authored several books: Kiss Me Like a Stranger, My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn’t and Something To Remember You By.  These works reflect the same genius and talent manifested in Wilder’s screen writing, directing and acting.Gene Wilder has set the professional standards which aspiring artists still endeavor to reach over fifty years after his debut. As great as his mind is, he is also a man with a golden heart. He is a warrior in the fight against ovarian cancer, establishing Gilda’s Club with Joanna Bull and Joel Siegel. Such a heart and mind merits the attention of the world. That is the why we hope that you will share in the privilege of hearing from the great…the incomparable Gene Wilder.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great pleasure to welcome our special guest, the one and only Gene Wilder. Thank you so much for joining us.
You’re very welcome.
My first question – who is Gene Wilder?
When you find out would you let me know? (Laughs) That’s a very difficult question. Probably also a simple one depending on who you’re asking. You’re asking me so it’s difficult. If you ask my wife I think it would be probably a simple question. It depends on what you want to get into when you say ‘Who are you?’. I’m a writer, an actor, a director and a painter, but that’s what I do. If you say ‘Who are you?’ I’d say I’m someone who has looked for love, long-lasting love, all my life and I finally found it 22 years ago. And I’m married to her now and I’m very happy.
I wanted to kind of zoom in on our love of the writing process and books.
Mhmm.
What books did you most enjoy growing up?
I didn’t read a lot growing up. I had to read when I was in English class and I read, oh, F. Scott Fitzgerald. I don’t think I read Hemingway then; I did later. I don’t remember reading. I read what I had to read. If you’re talking about plays, I read a lot of plays but as far as books, novels are concerned, I didn’t read many. The Snow Goose, The Great Gatsby, those are the things I remember the most now. But I read a lot of plays and I acted in a lot of plays when I was growing up, in high school.
Can you remember the first time that you thought that you could write and that you did write something yourself?
Now, when you say ‘write’ what kind of ‘write’ or ‘writing’ do you mean?
I mean something more than this is a teacher and I’m saying ‘You must write this’ but when you started kind of to branch out on the writing side creatively on your own.
Well, that started when I was in my first movie, which was Bonnie and Clyde. I thought that it, it needed a little help in my part. I didn’t change anyone else’s line but I made it instead of a scared-to-death fellow, Eugene Grizzard, who was shivering because they, I’m with the Barrow gang, I acted as if I was not afraid. Of course, inside I was but I, I pretended to be ‘Sure, I know – I know you fellows. I’m fine. I’m not scared.’ And I wrote that into my part. And the director said ‘You know, I never thought it was going to be played that way.’ I said ‘Well, why didn’t you tell me?’ and he said ‘Because I like what you did better than what I had down already.’ And that gaveme a little confidence. So then, when I was doing Start the Revolution without Me in France – I was there for four months – the director asked me to improvise and – because something wasn’t, it wasn’t going right in the first scene that I did with Donald Sutherland. So we both improvised and it came off very funny. And he said, ‘That’s what I want. Do that. Keep doing that.’ And then he would ask me to write things of my part and I did, and then it gave me confidence. And then I began writing my own screen plays. The first one was no good at all. The second one was a little better but not very good. The third one was Young Frankenstein. And from then on, I wrote I think five of my own screen plays that I acted in and directed. That gave me confidence in the writing but writing books is a different story – well, a different process.
You just mentioned a second ago Young Frankenstein which you co-wrote with Mel Brooks.
Well, I wrote it and he supervised the writing. He’d come after dinner, after his dinner, and say, he’d say ‘What have you got?’ and I’d show him, and he’d say ‘Yeah, yeah, OK. Now, you know we don’t have a villain. We don’t have a real villain. You’ve got to have a …’ And I’d say, you know, ‘Something like Inspector Kent in the Bride of Frankenstein?’ and he’d say ‘Yeah! Something like that.’ And then he’d go off and I’d write all day, and then there would be Inspector Kent. And that was, it was a process that we had because he was busy working on Blazing Saddles. And so, when it came time to actually do it, the fourth draft, he and I wrote one long speech before the monster goes way up on the elevation, and that we did together. Otherwise, it was things that he would put in while we were filming, like ‘Walk this way.’ I said ‘What does that mean?’ and he said ‘I’ll tell you afterwards. But, Marty, when you’re about to leave tell Gene – bend over like you’re crippled and say Walk this way.’ So he said it and I did it, what he said to do, and everyone started laughing as soon as they called ‘Cut’. And I said ‘Now will you tell what that is that we just did?’ It’s an old vaudeville routine about a man with a terrible case of hemorrhoids. He goes to a pharmacy and says ‘Have you got any talcum powder?’ and the pharmacist says ‘Yes, sir. Walk this way.’ and the man says ‘If I could walk that way, I wouldn’t need the talcum powder!’ (laughter) And it would be things like that. We had one scene where I thought it was a beauty and it worked fine, when Madeline Kahn comes to Transylvania to see her fiancé – me – and it wasn’t working at all and we couldn’t understand why. And Mel thought about it for a while and he said ‘Marty, when Gene says Igor, help me with these bags you say (imitates a NY accent) Certainly. You take the blonde and I’ll take the one in the turban.’ And then Marty went up and bit off the fox fur tail that Madeline was wearing and it came off into his mouth. And we had to finish the rest of that little scene when we’re all holding back our laughter. Well, that’s not writing but it is brilliant on Mel’s part that he just thought of something that would make that scene work, and it did. We all laughed afterwards. But writing – no. I mean, we did four drafts. We didn’t improvise during the scene, while we were acting. We never did that. But just adding little things like he would say ‘What knockers. You should say, Gene, say What knockers! when she hits the door.’ ‘Walk this way’ and all those little things. When I wrote Puttin’ on the Ritz withthe Monster and me, he saw it and he said ‘Are you crazy? That’s frivolous! You’re doing Irving Berlin? The Monster and you are going to dance to Irving Berlin?’ And I started arguing and I argued until I was blue in the face, and after about 15 minutes he said ‘OK. It’s in.’ And I said “Well, why did you put me through this?’ and he said ‘Because I wasn’t sure. I thought if you’d, if you didn’t fight for it I would want it out but you did fight for it, so it’s in.’ And I didn’t know if he was lying or not. I don’t know but now he talks about it whenever he’s on a show and they ask him about it, and he says what happened because he was embarrassed at first but then he loved it. And writing is a strange process in the movies, but I learned so much from him because, doing four drafts, you get to know what works and what doesn’t work. Things like that. And still, even when I was writing some other movies, I said afterwards ‘No, I don’t think that’s the really works.”
As far as the films written by you, like screen plays written by you, do you have a favorite?
Young Frankenstein.

Young Frankenstein
.
Mhmm.
And a second ago you mentioned kind of like changing the lines or maybe changing a little bit. I had heard in interviews regarding your work with Woody Allen that he said that you could change the lines if you wanted. Did you?
Not very much. He – I was stunned that he would say that to me but I changed a little bit because I was supposed to be falling in love with a sheep and so I think I added a few things when I was trying to be nice to that sheep I was in love with. And as soon as the scene was over, I saw him laughing – Woody – that’s what he wanted. But otherwise I didn’t. The only time I improvised was with Richard Pryor. He improvised all the time so he was my improvisational teacher.
Your first book was non-fiction, the autobiographical Kiss Me Like a Stranger.Mhmm. What made you decide it was time to switch your artistic canvas from the movies to books?
Well, I had been asked to write a book maybe three times and I said ‘No, I’m not ready yet, for that.’ And then, after I was married and after my wife, Karen’s, mother came to live with us after her husband died, we went to California together. It was supposed to be a two-week, it was supposed to be a two-week stay, and my wife’s mother got very ill and we ended up being there for six weeks, I think. And I thought I’d go crazy if I didn’t do something artistic, because I wasn’t going to be acting during that time. So I thought about all the films I’d been in – I didn’t want write a tell-all story – and I thought about some of the strange things that happened to me during certain films. And so then I started writing about all the things that I thought would be the most interesting, for myself and for an audience, and then it worked out very well. I got an editor and a publishing house, St. Martin’s Press, my editor, Elizabeth Beier, and they have been for over ten years now. They’ve done every book I’ve ever written.
I felt like Kiss me Like a Stranger, I feel like it’s a really honest book and it deals with a lot of really, really personal things.
It does.
Was there any reservation as to whether you wanted everybody to know about all of these things?
I had no reservations about that. The only reservations I had wereI didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I might have left out a certain part. But as far as being very personal, I thought if I’m not going to be honest, what’s the point of writing the book?
Was writing Kiss Me Like a Stranger a therapeutic thing for you in any way?
Well, to the extent that acting is somewhat therapeutic but not in the same way, and I’d been in psychotherapy for seven and a half years when I was really in trouble, and I found that by writing, things would come out of me, even if I’m not the character in it, it would still come out and I would feel better afterwards because it did help me. But what I was writing was, I would say, one-third authentic, realistic and two-thirds fictional but it was still me.
Our special guest is Gene Wilder. What inspires you the most to write?
My pen and paper, and my computer. I write every day, every day of my life. If I had a story in mind I might write, oh, a half-page to see if anything is happening. My wife would say ‘What is that?’ I said ‘I have no idea.’ And then I keep on going and it turns out to be a novel or a novella. So I write and find out, as I’m writing, what’s going to happen. But I never know what’s going to happen until I write it. And I thought ‘Well, that sounds very interesting but I don’t know if I could ever do that.’ And it turns out that’s what I do almost every time.
Are there any modern authors that you’re reading now, that have influenced you?
The writers that have influenced me the most are Ernest Hemingway and Jean Renoir, the French director who has written two books. But everything he does, Renoir, is so simple but it’s also so deep. And Hemingway writes in short but meaningful sentences and doesn’t go on about things that didn’t interest him. They were precise and honest, and that‘s what he wanted. And I think I got most of what my technique, if you want to call it technique, is based on what I learned from Hemingway and Jean Renoir.
You mention Jean Renoir in the acknowledgements for My French Whore, and you also kind of talk about meeting him in Kiss Me Like a Stranger. What was going through your mind when you met him?
Well, the first thing that was going through my mind was that he was sitting at his desk and the sun was hitting his eyes, and I saw tears coming out of his eye. And I said ‘Would you like to change places with me, Mr. Renoir?’ and he said ‘No, the sun feels good on my sore eye.’ And I was very moved by that. And I asked him – before we got into Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx, which is why we were there, to see if he would direct it – I asked him ‘What’s your favorite restaurant in Paris?’ and he said ‘Chez Allard. It’s good food and the wine is honest.’ I always remembered that, years later. And I went there many times, too. Now, I think it’s very popular. I won’t say ‘too popular’ because I haven’t been there for about ten years but I’m told that it’s very crowded now. Anyway, he then said ‘I love this Quackser and I will do your film but you’d have to wait one year because I’m tied up now. And I know the show business’ he said, ‘you probably can’t wait a year. you might lose your money but if you do wait, I’ll do your film.’ And my producer said on our way out ‘He’s right, you know. I may not have the money in a year from now. It’s up to you. What do you want to do?’ And I didn’t want to lose that film so I said ‘I think we better do it now.’ And we found a director and went to Ireland for a long while, and we filmed Quackser Fortune and that was that. But I certainly wished that I had had Jean Renoir as the director.
Do you ever look back and wonder ‘what if he had’?
I have looked back many times and wondered that but how would I know? I know that it would be the kind of directing I would love – something honest, something simple. I’ve seen all of his films and I can only tell you what I believe, that I would have loved working with him. Not that the film was bad that we did but I think it would have been very different if Renoir had done it.
You wrote a second fictional work, The Woman Who Wouldn’t.
That was the third one.
The third one.
My French Whore was the second one.
Right, but the second fictional …
Well, My French Whore was fictional and so was The Woman Who Wouldn’t, except they were all based on something that set me off. I mean, My French Whore I was, I was in France for four months and had fallen in love with someone, a French woman, but it was impossible. I think what happened between it, this love affair, and I had to say goodbye, and so I wrote a screenplay about it. And it wasn’t a good screenplay. Fourteen years later I looked at it again and I said ‘I think I’ll write a novel about it.’ and then the novel turned out good. The screenplay was not good. I didn’t know enough about screenplays then. Now I’ve written a screenplay for it and it might be done as a movie. As far as The Woman Who Wouldn’t, it was all based on a short story – well, Anton Chekhov is my favorite author and he wrote a short story called The Lady with the Pet Dog and in the last page of it, he wrote something about impossible not to love this woman and impossible, since she’s married and he lives far away, how can he love her? And it’s left off like that. And so I took that little idea from that last page and I wrote The Woman Who Wouldn’t because I have her saying ‘No, I wouldn’t’ so many times in the beginning, when the man I just a flirt, just wants to have a quick, easy affair for a week or two weeks at this resort for, for health, it’s a health resort. But I changed the ending. Mine is a happy ending.
The latest book of yours is a collection of short stories entitled What Is this Thing Called Love?
Right.
Do you find writing short stories is more gratifying than the dedication that writing a novel takes?
Well, you know it’s, it really is two different things – I’m sure you’re aware of that – but I like writing short stories. I find it much easier. It flows much easier once I have the idea because I don’t have to write 200 pages. I can write 25 pages, 27 pages and write a good story. There’s a beginning and a middle and an end. Yes, I find it easier but when I write a novel or shorter, a novella, it’s very gratifying when I reach the end because I think I have tapped more things than I have in a short story. Although, in What Is this Thing Called Love? all of the stories, they’re about love but they’re all different. And in that sense, I think I’ve, I’ve found some truths that perhaps I don’t find in it, or haven’t found in some of the books I’ve written. So I like both of them, novel and short story.
One of the characters we get to meet is Buddy Silberman.
Yeah.
What made you think Buddy Silberman is a character that should be in a book? Tell us about him.
Well, we grew up together from the time we were six years old. He was my cousin and when I went to college and then, oh, went to California and started acting in the movies – then he came he wanted to be near me so he, he started his business in Los Angeles and we became close again. And he was really a character. If I’ve known anyone – well, I could say Mel Brooks is a character and certainly one or two others I’ve worked with I’d say were characters – but Buddy was a real character because he gambled. He, he never cheated anyone but he tried to cheat the government and they, they uh, took away his rights to earn any money for about eight years. He wasn’t well. He didn’t do what the doctors said to do. And he loved a good laugh. He tried to find love but he never found love. He found sex but he didn’t find love. And he always would say something funny. He was never morbid. And I wanted to write about him – after he died, I mean.
I read a review from someone who read the collection of short stories and they said something that I thought was interesting. They said ‘Gene made me feel again. I didn’t realize until reading this book that I had forgotten how to be human.’
Geez …
(Laughs) On that note, what do you want for someone to get out of the experience of reading one of your books?
Well on the easy side, I want them to laugh or to be touched. On the more serious side, I’d like it to be like that someone who said ‘I feel again.’ Again, I’m saying like my lessons were from Chekhov, to touch the heart. I don’t want to, I don’t want to bypass it. I don’t want to roll around it. I want to get right to the heart so there’s something that affects the person who’s reading it – maybe laughs, maybe cries – but that it affects the heart. That’s my goal.
And what is it you like about writing?
(Laughs) Well, I can be at home, in my own study as I am now. I can write for an hour and a half, two hours. Get up, make a cup of tea, give my wife a kiss. Come back, write a little bit more and then go out and have lunch. Take a walk, come back, write some more. And then after about four and a half, five hours, say ‘that’s enough for today.’ Now I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to do with this tomorrow because I never know. But during the middle of the night, when I wake up, I usually figure out what I want to do.
What has writing taught you about life?
It’s taught me about art. I think that if you are an artist, in the sense that you are a musician, a painter, an actor, a director, a writer, you’re all working from the same reservoir. It’s just that what’s in that reservoir is different for a lot of artists. I can’t do certain things in art but I can do other things, and I think the writing is just part of the same thing. It’s part of my – when I was acting, I was acting because I wanted to act something that came out funny or beautiful. And that’s, that’s what most people want when they write. I don’t want to tell the world what’s, what’s good. I, I want to affect the heart, that’s all. And that’s what I think painters, in one way or another, painters want to do, because I paint. And that doesn’t mean I paint the way other painters do but that’s, Ithink that’s what they would want. A pianist, I know that’s what they want. That’s what they do. I think a ballerina, a director – I think it’s all the same. It’s just one huge reservoir, that you’re good in this or you’re good in this or you’re good in this but it’s the same huge lake that you’re, you’ve chosen something.
Very good answer! What do you feel your greatest strength is as a writer?
Greatest strength … I get the same answer from I would say hundreds now, almost hundreds of people, who respond to my writing in person or in letters, and that is ‘When I read your books it’s like I’m hearing you talk.’ And ‘It’s so simple and yet profound.’ Well, I like that. I don’t like to get high-falootin’ when I write.
In all of your books it seems as if – in fact, I’ve read where other people have said ‘I can almost hear your voice’ and I suppose it’s interesting because you’re an author that almost everyone recognizes the voice of – but ‘You can hear, you feel like it is a conversation.’
Umhmm. Right.
Do you ever get writer’s block and, if so, what do you do about it?
No, I don’t get writer’s block. I, I get blocked when I’ve finished something that late afternoon and I say ‘Now what the hell am I going to do with this?’ I’ve written something that’s a good idea but how am I going to solve it? And I told you I, I wake up in the middle of the night and I usually – usually – have the answer. And I sit down the next morning and I go on but I wouldn’t call it a block. I don’t say I can’t write for a week because I have a writer’s block. I might have a writer’s block for an hour or for a night, even. But it’s not a block. It’s trying to figure out the configuration I made during the day. How am I going to solve it? I always know what I want the book to be about.
I’m very curious to know if you listen to music while you’re writing. Do you find that music inspires you or distracts your writing?
As long as there are no lyrics or someone singing, it inspires me and I choose my music accordingly.
Classical?
What will help me write this scene? Do I want Tchaikovsky or, more likely, Rachmaninoff or do I want Chopin?
With all the work that you’re putting into your books, would you ever consider doing another movie?
(Sighs) I’m asked to do movies a lot of times but I really don’t want to act any more. On the other hand, I have a very good agent. He sends me things and I have told him ‘I don’t want to act, David.’ But if something comes along that rings the bell and I say ‘I have to do this movie’ then I would do it. But it hasn’t come along yet.
As far as your writing, can you tell all the listeners out there about anything that’s forthcoming, as far as books?
The one I’m working on now – I’m on page 85 – it’s called Something to Remember You By and it’s a World War II, 1944-45 in London, where the male character is a lieutenant. Most of that takes place in London but also in Germany and Alsace and partly in Denmark, where the love affair comes from. It’s a lady who is also living in London now but she came from Denmark. And we’re on a very dangerous mission, trying to save someone from the gas chamber, the Nazi gas chamber – trying to save four ladies from the gas chamber. And the French Resistance and – well, it’s an action-adventure love story really, and I’ve already written the book after that. It’s called Even Dogs Know How to Swim. But my editor says ‘You’ve got part one, two and three in that. But when you finish Something to Remember You By I want you to write part four to Even Dogs Know How to Swim.’ So I’ve got my work cut out for me right now.
Indeed.
No hurry. I don’t have to rush. She wants to do the action-adventure one, love story, in – next summer, I believe, and then the other one I don’t know.
As you’re writing, do you share the pages you’ve written so far with anybody, like your wife? I think you mentioned …No, I don’t. No, if I’m, if I don’t know whether this works or doesn’t work I say ‘Darling, would you read this one page and tell me if this makes sense to you, comes across alright, anything wrong with it?’ She’ll come and say ‘No, no. That’s good.’ That’s all. I don’t want her to read a lot because I want her to read the whole book when it’s finished and then say, before I write a second draft or a third draft. But if she were to read all of it now, then she won’t be as objective when she reads the whole book again later. I mean, reading it page by page, it’s hard to say ‘Now would you read the whole book and tell me what you think?’ because she knows so much. So I just ask her ‘What about this, this paragraph? Does this make sense to you?’ I might do that.
I have two final questions for our special guest, Mr. Gene Wilder. One is kind of light-hearted and then the last question a little deeper. What is your all-time favorite meal?(Laughs) Ohh, OK, now you’re talking business. Well, I have several. I think – I like steak. I like lamb chops. I like veal chops but I think I like pasta more. Or sometimes lamb chops and pasta. I love baked potatoes, too. But pasta with something in it – vegetarian or bolognaise. I like all those things. And my wife always makes a salad – all kinds of mixed greens and carrots and radishes. Sometimes a little watermelon mixed in. A lot of tomatoes. So whichever I’m eating, it’s always a healthy dinner. But, given a choice, I probably would pick linguine with shrimp in it or chopped meat or sometimes zucchini sautéed. I like – in a way, I would probably like a roast chicken more than anything. and I’d roast it, too. And my wife thinks that’s some of the best roast chicken she’s had. But I suppose I would put the roast chicken first but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day. But I like roast chicken with crispy onions in the same skillet with the chicken.
It sounds like you like everything from simple cuisine to elaborate cuisine. I think you can find out a lot about a person from the answer to that question.Yeah but not, not so much haute cuisine. I like simple cuisine but maybe – well, just the sort of things I’ve told you. They’re all basically simple. We cook together. My wife and I cook together and we have a glass of, a small glass of white wine while we’re cooking. And then we sit down and have a meal, usually with a good red wine.
Sounds like a very tranquil time.It is tranquil.
Well, my last question for Gene Wilder. This interview will be heard by people all over the world.Oh, my goodness.
In closing, what would you like to say to those people who are listening? Totally open-ended.Well, what do you say to those people? Gosh. Talking to Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Norway, London, Scotland, Ireland, Hong Kong. They’re all so different and yet when I get mail – and I do, constantly, from all those countries – they’re oftentimes saying basically the same things, and what they want me to sign is a photograph, usually of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and/or Young Frankenstein. Sometimes Silver Streak. What I would say to them is I hope that you, I hope that this touches your heart or makes you laugh. It would always be something like that. I hope it touches your heart and/or makes you laugh.
Very well put. Thank you so much for this interview. It’s been a great pleasure to speak to you.You’re very welcome. My pleasure, too.
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.

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