Gene Wilder in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971)

THE WONDER OF GENE WILDER By PJ McIlvaine

When we first heard the news, we didn’t want to believe it. We thought maybe it was an unsubstantiated rumor or one of those stupid social media hoaxes. Sadly, it was not.

Willy Wonka was gone.

My kids, all Millennials, were devastated. This is their childhood, and their heroes are leaving us. Gene Wilder, along with Robin Williams and David Bowie, were at the top of their lists.

Wilder’s passing hit too close to home. He was born in the same year as their late beloved grandmother, and he died from complications of Alzheimer’s, the same as she. As the doctor at the hospice told us, no one really dies from Alzheimer’s; it’s always the complications.

Wilder was one of those rare comedic geniuses that had that unaffected, genuine, childlike quality that kids and adults could relate to. In his heyday, Jerry Lewis had it, as did Robin Williams and John Candy.

I admit, I knew of Gene Wilder, but I didn’t really know him, if you get my meaning. And then I met my husband, and he was a huge Wilderphile. We watched “Young Frankenstein”, “The Producers” and ‘High Anxiety.” I thought they were funny, but I didn’t appreciate those movies the way I do now.

In all honesty, my real introduction to the genius of Gene Wilder was in “Blazing Saddles.” I have Wilder to thank for the birth of our first daughter. Halloween was two days away, and I was two weeks overdue. It seemed like another uneventful night. My husband turned on “Blazing Saddles.” The movie’s insanity kept me from dwelling too much on our recalcitrant baby.

The movie over, we went to bed at midnight. Fifteen minutes and two cataclysmic convulsions later, we were on our way to the Emergency Room. Our firstborn made her debut roughly two hours later via Cesarean Section; at the last minute, she had flipped and her feet were all the way down the birth canal. I blame Wilder for that.

It wasn’t until our kids got older that I rediscovered the wonder of Wilder. And that was because of — -you guessed it — -“Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory”.

I knew that the movie was an adaptation of a Roald Dahl children’s book, and that when it was first released in 1971, it was considered a moderate hit. Later, thanks to repeated television viewings and VCR sales, it became a cult classic. My kids were gleeful converts.

I can’t remember how many times I watched “Wonka” with them, singing and dancing along to the Oompa-Loompas. They laughed over the bratty kids and they giggled over the silly names. But they loved Willy Wonka best of all, his penchant for mixing up words, his weird candy, and his fantastic psychedelic play land of sweet treats. I might have gotten tired of the movie after the 1867th viewing, but I never tired of Wilder, and I never tired of seeing the excitement on my kids’ faces.

Years later, when the remake of “Willy Wonka” came along, now recast as “Charlie and The Chocolate Factory”, my kids, older and wiser, weren’t buying it. Never mind that it starred another one of their favorites. In their eyes, there was only one Willy Wonka and any remake was a terrible idea destined to fail. As it turned out, they were right.

Now my kids have kids of their own, and I know that when their kids are a little bit older, they’re going to learn all about Willy Wonka — -I mean, Gene Wilder. And that is a beautiful thing that will last forever.

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