Gene Wilder was so much more than his pitch-perfect work as Willy Wonka

What makes a great actor great?

When I watch a performance, there are certain things I look for, and the biggest of those things is whether or not the actor is making choices about their work. There are plenty of actors who get through a scene just fine and who deliver their lines nicely and who never ever connect beyond that for me because it doesn”t feel like they”re bringing anything to the process aside from their physical presence. There are certain actors, though, who I am immediately drawn to because you can see how they”re taking the raw material of the script and they”re putting it through their personal filter so that the end result is something the writer couldn”t have imagined, that the director couldn”t have asked for, and that the actor never would have reached on his own. Gene Wilder was one of those actors, and he leaves behind a body of work that is filled with joy and invention, shot through with a singular comic vision.

For many people my age, Gene Wilder was Willy Wonka first.

It”s sort of amazing seeing how much love there is for the film now considering it was a total disaster when it was first released. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was bankrolled by the Quaker Oats folks to help launch a Willy Wonka line of chocolate bars, and Paramount Pictures released the film in 1971. They did okay with it, but not great, and at the end of the year, it was nominated for an Oscar for Best Score. Wilder got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy, but come on… look at that performance now and the iconic weight of it. In a perfect system, that performance has to be considered one of the very best given by anyone that year, and should have been praised and awarded much more than that, as much as possible. The film was first shown on television in 1975, and in 1977, Paramount gave up their distribution rights, which is another mind-boggling decision. Wolper Pictures Ltd. was sold to Warner Bros, and Quaker Oats sold the studio their share of the rights as well, and over time, it was Warner that managed to take this film that was willingly dumped on them and turn it into the beloved classic that it is now.

At the heart of the film”s enduring appeal is Wilder”s work, and in this one performance, you can see everything that made him great. His entrance is an all-timer, and it was something that Wilder created. Willy Wonka is presented as a mysterious figure, so when he does finally enter the film, it”s shocking to see him using a cane, limping terribly, apparently frail. All of a sudden, he plants the cane by accident and takes an extra step, faltering, and then collapsing forward. Just as the crowd gasps, Wonka rolls and pops up, revealing that he is fine and the limp was just an act. It”s funny, but it”s more than that. It is a promise to the audience that Wonka is completely untrustworthy, and for the rest of the film, Wilder lives up to that promise.

His Wonka is not some safe and cuddly kiddie character. He”s sinister just as much as he”s charming. He”s got a quiet seething contempt for bad behavior that runs through the film as subtext, and Wilder savors every bit of it. His dark sarcasm is often devastating in the film. When they were shooting the movie, he grew quite close to Peter Ostrum, who played Charlie. He did not tell Ostrum that he was planning to yell during the final scene in the office when he tells Charlie that he is disqualified for stealing, and so when he finally let loose during the actual filming of the scene, that shock you see on Ostrum”s face is real. He couldn”t believe what was happening because he was so used to the sweet and gentle Gene Wilder.

When I read the official statement released by his family today, I thought it was crushingly sad, but also perfectly in keeping with who I”ve always believed Wilder to be. He kept the details of his sickness very quiet, and not simply because he was a private person. Here”s their statement:

“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.