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A portrait of actor Gene Wilder

Actor Gene Wilder: 'Kiss Me Like a Stranger'

Gene Wilder made his film debut as a kidnap victim in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde. He is known for his work with Mel Brooks, in addition to the classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder has written a new memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.

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Transcript

DATE March 16, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Gene Wilder discusses his career and his new memoir,
"Kiss Me Like a Stranger"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Gene Wilder, made his movie debut in "Bonnie and Clyde," starred in
the Mel Brooks movies "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing
Saddles," played opposite Richard Pryor in such as films as "Silver Streak"
and "Stir Crazy," and portrayed the candy maker in "Willy Wonka & the
Chocolate Factory." Wilder writes about his movies, his stage career and his
life in his new memoir, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger." The title was suggested by
his late wife, Gilda Radner, three weeks before she died in 1989. He writes
about Gilda in his book, too.

Before we talk, let's hear one of Gene Wilder's classic scenes from "The
Producers." Zero Mostel plays the over-the-hill producer. Wilder is his new
and timid accountant, Leo Bloom. While going through the books, Bloom
realizes that with some creative accounting, it would be possible to make more
money with a flop than a hit.

(Soundbite of "The Producers")

Mr. GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Let's assume, just for the moment, that you
are a dishonest man.

Mr. ZERO MOSTEL: Assume away.

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) It's very easy. You simply raise more money than
you really need.

Mr. MOSTEL: What do you mean?

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Well, you did it yourself, only you did it on a
very small scale.

Mr. MOSTEL: What'd I do?

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) You raised $2,000 more than you needed to produce
your last play.

Mr. MOSTEL: So what? What did it get me? I'm wearing a cardboard belt.

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Well, that's where you made your mistake. You
didn't go all the way. You see, if you were really a bold criminal, you could
have raised a million.

Mr. MOSTEL: But the play cost me only $60,000 to produce.

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) And how long did it run?

Mr. MOSTEL: One night.

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Do you see? Do you see what I'm trying to tell
you? You could have raised a million dollars, put on a $60,000 flop and kept
the rest.

Mr. MOSTEL: But what if the play was a hit?

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Well, then you'd go to jail. See, once a play's a
hit, you have to pay off all the backers, and with so many backers, there
could never be enough profits to go around. Get it?

Mr. MOSTEL: Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Aha. So in order for the scheme to work, we'd
have to find a sure-fire flop!

Mr. WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) What scheme?

GROSS: Gene Wilder, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Now you met Mel Brooks through Anne Bancroft when you were in a
production "Mother Courage" together. How did Mel Brooks first tell you about
"The Producers"?

Mr. WILDER: Well, first of all, I was miscast in that production by Jerome
Robbins, but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel
Brooks, and that made my--I can't say my day; it made my life, in a way. I
met Mel backstage in Anne's dressing room. He was wearing one of those
pea coats, pea jackets that were made famous by the merchant marines, and I
admired it, and he said, `You know, they used to call this a urine jacket, but
it didn't sell.' And I laughed and he laughed. And after we saw each other
several times, he said, `Would you like to come to Fire Island and spend
the weekend with Anne and me? I'd like to read the first 30 pages of this
movie I'm writing called "Springtime for Hitler,"' and I said I would like
that very much. And then I went there one June weekend. And he read me the
first 30 pages of what was later called "The Producers."

GROSS: What was in that 30 pages that Mel Brooks read you of "The Producers"?

Mr. WILDER: The first scene where I enter the office and meet Zero Mostel,
and it's a wonderful scene. It's 27 pages, and I thought, well, I don't know
that much about movies, but this is a long scene to do all in one, but we did,
and it was great. And then Mel said, `Do you want to play this part of Leo
Bloom?' and I said, `Oh, yes, I would.' And he said, `All right. Don't take
anything in the fall without calling me,' and in that fall, I was offered "One
Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest" with Kirk Douglas on Broadway, and I felt a
little silly, but I called Mel, and I said, `You said I should call.' `Yeah,
yeah, yeah. Can you get a two-week out in your contract?' he said, and I
said, `Mel, I'm not a star. They're not going to give me two weeks' notice
out. I can ask for a four-week out.' He said, `All right. We'll have to
live with it.'

And three years went by, I never heard from him, and one day I was taking off
my makeup in Murray Schisgal's play on Broadway called "Luv," and there was a
knock on the door, and I opened it and there was Mel standing with a tall
gentleman behind him, and I said, `Mel.' He said, `You don't think I forgot,
do you?' He said, `I'm ready to do "Springtime for Hitler" now, and this is
our producer, Sidney Glazier,' and that's how it all started.

GROSS: Now he offered you the part before he had finished writing it.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: But on the other hand, after offering you the part, you had to
audition for Zero Mostel, because Zero Mostel was a big star, and...

Mr. WILDER: That's right.

GROSS: ...he had to be comfortable with the people in the cast and he had to
be convinced that you were the right guy. So what did you have to do for him?

Mr. WILDER: Well, Mel said, `You know, I love you, but Zero doesn't know you,
and he has the right of approval of whoever's going to play Leo Bloom. So
come to the office and you'll do a reading with him.' So I went to the office
on a Thursday or Friday morning and knocked on the door, and Mel opened it,
and I saw Zero Mostel in the background, and he said, `Come on in, come on in.
Gene, this is Z. Z, this is Gene.' And I put out my hand to shake hands with
him, and he took my hand and he pulled me up to his face and he gave me a kiss
on the lips, and all my nervousness went out the window. I think he must have
done it on purpose, because he understood actors and how I would naturally be
a little nervous doing this. And I gave a very good reading and then I got
the part.

GROSS: What was it like playing opposite Zero Mostel, who is big in every
way? He has big features. He was a big man. His gestures were big. His
voice was loud, and your character was supposed to be very meek and insecure.

Mr. WILDER: Well, you say the character was meek and insecure. You could
have been describing me as well. I was a very shy person in those days, and
working with Zero, who was bigger than life, helped me grow. Zero was a
strong influence on me. We spent--we didn't go out to lunch. We always
stayed in the studio, Highbrown Studios(ph) on I think it was 27th Street in
Manhattan. And we'd have lunch together, a sandwich and a cup of soup, and he
would talk to me about the days of the blacklisting and everything he went
through, and they ruined his life for a while, and then when he came back in,
I think, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and then all of his
other big successes on Broadway, he wasn't afraid of authority in any form,
and that's the part that influenced me the most. He would tell anyone,
anything, not to be impolite, but he'd show that he wasn't at all afraid of
however much money that person or whatever title they had in a company--it
didn't scare him. And Mel was very much the same way.

GROSS: Were there times when you had to stand up to them and to do something
your own way...

Mr. WILDER: No.

GROSS: ...when they didn't want you to?

Mr. WILDER: With Mel, only one time, and that was later on during "Young
Frankenstein." Never with Zero and never with Mel, except I was writing every
day and then Mel would come to the house and read what I'd written, and then
he'd say, `Yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, yeah, OK, but we need a villain or we
need'--whatever it was--and we'd talk a little bit and then he'd go away and I
would write all the next day and he'd come and look at it, and then one day
when he read the pages I had written about Dr. Frankenstein and the creature
sing and dance to "Putting On the Ritz," he said, `Are you crazy? This is
frivolous. You're just being frivolous.' Well, my temperature rose, and
after 20 minutes or so of arguing, my color went from red to, I think, blue or
purple. I started screaming, and then all of a sudden, he said, `OK, it's
in.' And I said, `Well, why did you put me through this?' And he said, `I
wasn't sure if it was right, and I thought if you didn't argue for it, then it
was wrong, and if you did, it was right. So you convinced me.'

GROSS: Well, this is such a classic scene, I mean, you as Dr. Frankenstein
are presenting in a theater your creation, you know, the...

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Frankenstein monster, played by Peter Boyle, and you're both in
top hat and tails and you introduce him. Then you sing a duet of "Putting On
the Ritz" and, you know, do a little soft-shoe, and it's really such a
wonderful scene. So how did you come up with a way to--with an excuse to do
it, you know, with the plot point to get in the production number?

Mr. WILDER: Because we had to convince the, well, scientific members of
Transylvania that with the procedure I was using on the creature, he could be
taught to be a civilized human being, what I called a man about town, and it
was for their sake that I was doing it, and I just thought it was the funniest
way of doing it, that's all, but instead of a monster who's going to kill
their children, it was someone who could sing and dance.

GROSS: Well, I think we have no choice here but to listen to you and Peter
Boyle doing "Putting On the Ritz" from the soundtrack of "Young Frankenstein."

(Soundbite of "Young Frankenstein")

Mr. WILDER: Ladies and gentlemen, up until now, you've seen the creature
perform the simple mechanics of motor activity, but for what you are about to
see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius. Ladies and
gentlemen, madams et messieurs, damen unt herren, from what was once an
inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured,
sophisticated, man about town? Hit it!

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WILDER: (Singing, as Dr. Frankenstein) If you're blue and you don't know
where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits...

Mr. PETER BOYLE: Putting on the Ritz!

Mr. WILDER: (Singing, as Dr. Frankenstein) Different types who wear a day
coat, pants with stripes or cut-away coat, perfect fits...

Mr. BOYLE: Putting on the Ritz!

Mr. WILDER: (Singing, as Dr. Frankenstein) Dressed up like a million-dollar
trouper, trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper...

Mr. BOYLE: Super-duper!

Mr. WILDER: (Singing, as Dr. Frankenstein) Come, let's mix where Rockefellers
walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts...

Mr. BOYLE: Putting on the Ritz!

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle from the soundtrack of "Young
Frankenstein." Wilder has written a new memoir. We'll talk more after a
break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Gene Wilder. He's written a new memoir called "Kiss Me
Like a Stranger." Here's another scene from "Young Frankenstein" in which
Wilder plays the grandson of the infamous mad scientist. He's at the train
station in Transylvania, meeting his new assistant, played by Marty Feldman.

(Soundbite of "Young Frankenstein")

Mr. MARTY FELDMAN: (As Igor) Dr. Frankenstein.

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Frankenstein (pronounced fran-ken-steen).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) You're putting me on.

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No. It's pronounced Frankenstein
(fran-ken-steen).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) Do you also say Frederick (pronounced fro-der-ick)?

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No, Frederick (pronounced fred-rick).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) Well, why isn't it Frederick (pronounced fro-der-ick)
Frankenstein (pronounced frank-ken-steen)?

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) It isn't. It's Frederick (pronounced
fred-rick) Frankenstein (pronounced fran-ken-steen).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) I see.

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) You must be Igor (pronounced e-gor).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) No, it's pronounced Igor (eye-gor).

Mr. WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) But they told me it was Igor (pronounced
e-gor).

Mr. FELDMAN: (As Igor) Well, they were wrong then, weren't they?

GROSS: Gene Wilder, you came up with the premise for "Young Frankenstein."
You officially share credits with--Mel Brooks shares credit with you for the
screenplay and the screen story. What gave you the idea of writing "Young
Frankenstein?" Did you love the "Frankenstein" movie?

Mr. WILDER: Well, at the time, I didn't know why. But I know now that when I
was a little boy, I was scared to death of the "Frankenstein" film. Films,
actually, 'cause there were four of them in particular that influenced me.
And in all these years later, I wanted it to come out with a happy ending.
And I think it was my fear of the "Frankenstein" movies when I was eight and
nine and 10 years old that made me want to write that story, that I was a
young doctor or dental hygienist, and found out that my great-grandfather,
Bolfort Von Frankenstein(ph), left me the whole estate. That was all I had in
mind at the time.

And then my agent, at the time, Mike Medavoy, before he became a movie mogul,
called me up and said, `How about a movie with you and Peter Boyle and Marty
Feldman?' And I said, `What makes you think of that?' He said, `Because I
now handle you and Peter and Marty.' And I said, `Well, as it happens, I do
have something.' `Well, send it to me right now.' I said, `No, I want to
work on it a little bit.' And that night, I wrote two more pages, the
Transylvania Station scene, almost verbatim the way it is in the film, and
then I sent it off to him. And he said, `I think I can sell this, and maybe
we can get Mel to direct. And I said, `I don't think he's going to direct
something he didn't conceive of.'

And Mel--you have to understand this important point. He had done "The
Producers" for $50,000 over two years, and he didn't make a penny from it.
And then he did "The Twelve Chairs," $50,000 for two more years, and didn't
make a penny from it. That's four years of work. And then they offered him a
quite a bit of money to direct "Young Frankenstein," and he took it. And he
called me first. He said, `What are you getting me into?' I said, `Nothing
you don't want to get into.' He said, `I don't know. I don't know. I don't
know.' The next day, I got a call saying, `Mel's gonna do it.'

GROSS: There's quite a few really classic jokes in "Young Frankenstein." One
of them, and this seems like it's probably the oldest joke in the world, and
I'm not sure...

Mr. WILDER: Oh, dear.

GROSS: I think you know the one, the `walk this way' joke.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah. Now...

GROSS: Why don't you describe how it happens in the movie, and tell me if
it's something that you and Brooks came up with, or whether this joke has a
long previous life, 'cause it seems like--I don't know I ever heard it before
the movie, but it seems like it should have been around forever. Do you know
what I mean?

Mr. WILDER: I had never heard of it before, and while we were filming
outdoors on location, Mel says to Marty Feldman, `Marty...

GROSS: Who's playing the doctor's assistant.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: Your assistant.

Mr. WILDER: Igor.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WILDER: Or Igor (pronounced eye-gor). He says, `Bend over and say to
Gene, "Walk this way," and then crouch down and walk away.' And I said, `Mel,
what does that mean?' He said, `I'll tell you later. I'll tell you later.
Just do it for now.' And so I took the cane, and I followed Marty after the
camera started rolling, and I walked this funny walk, and everyone laughed
afterwards.

And I said, `Now will you tell me what it means?' He says, `A man has a
terrible case of hemorrhoids. He goes into a drugstore, and he says, "Have
you got some talcum powder for me? I've got terrible hemorrhoids." And the
pharmacist says, "Walk this way." And he said, "If I could walk that way, I
wouldn't need the talcum powder."' And I said, `Where did that come from?'
He says, `It's an old vaudeville routine. It's years old.' But I had never
heard of it before, but it worked.

GROSS: And another real classic one, when you get to the castle...

Mr. WILDER: Now don't...

GROSS: What? There's these large...

Mr. WILDER: Yeah, door?

GROSS: ...large, like, brass door knockers.

Mr. WILDER: With knobs, yeah.

GROSS: With knobs on them.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: And as you're approaching the door, you lift...

Mr. WILDER: Teri Garr.

GROSS: Yeah, Teri. You lift Teri Garr out of the wagon that you've arrived
in.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: And your head is kind of buried in her chest as...

Mr. WILDER: Yes.

GROSS: ...Igor knocks on the door, and you say...

Mr. WILDER: No.

GROSS: No, you tell it.

Mr. WILDER: And I say...

GROSS: You tell it.

Mr. WILDER: Well, he knocks on the door, and just when Teri's breast is
brushed up against my face, I look and see the knockers, and I say, `What
knockers.' And she says, (with accent) `Thank you, doctor.'

GROSS: Now how'd you guys come up with that one? It also sounds like...

Mr. WILDER: Listen, I didn't...

GROSS: ...this is a classic, yeah.

Mr. WILDER: No, that's Mel. That's Mel. That wasn't written. He just said,
`When you lift her off the wagon like that, look at the knockers and say,
"What knockers."' Well, I thought it was very funny at the time, but that
wasn't written, that was just improvised. It wasn't improvised. He just
said, `Say "What knockers,"' and it worked.

GROSS: Now I'm thinking you and Mel Brooks, you're both Jewish, but you're
from very different parts of United States and probably had different
experiences growing up, 'cause he's...

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

GROSS: ...very East Coast, very New York, very borsch belt. And you grew up,
was it Milwaukee?

Mr. WILDER: Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

GROSS: Yeah, so, I mean, didn't have the borsch belt.

Mr. WILDER: No, no, no.

GROSS: Probably didn't know vaudeville as well as he did?

Mr. WILDER: No, and don't say `as well.' I didn't know it at all. I'd read
about a few things, but that's all.

GROSS: So what were some of the points of commonality and difference between
the two of you and your sense of theater and showbiz?

Mr. WILDER: Well, when I was still in school and I saw "Your Show of Shows,"
which was my favorite television show, with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks was one of
the writers. At first, he started out as a low man on the totem pole until he
advanced to head writer. But I had a feeling for what he had written. I
wasn't sure if I was right. And then when I met him, there was a closeness,
because I loved that kind of humor, his kind of humor. It wasn't any part of
my life in my humor, but I just appreciated it. There was an affinity there
somewhere. And in so many ways, we're not at all alike, and in some ways,
we're very much alike.

When people, especially from France, would ask me to talk about, so they could
write about, New York Jewish humor, I'd say, `I don't know anything about New
York Jewish humor. I know who Zero Mostel was, and I know Mel Brooks, but
that's about all I could tell you about New York Jewish humor.' And I
certainly didn't have New York Jewish humor, but I was in three Mel Brooks
films, so people thought I was a connoisseur of New York Jewish humor.

My humor was quite different. Mine was "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and
"The World's Greatest Lover" and "Haunted Honeymoon," "The Woman in Red," "See
No Evil, Hear No Evil," but his was much broader and, I think, much funnier,
too.

GROSS: Gene Wilder has written a new memoir called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."
He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Coming up, Gene Wilder talks about teaming up with Richard Pryor, his
marriage to Gilda Radner, her death from ovarian cancer, and his own bout with
cancer. Wilder has a new memoir called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Stir Crazy")

Mr. WILDER: What are you doing?

Mr. RICHARD PRYOR: I'm getting bad. You better get bad, Jack, because you
ain't bad, you going to get (censored). If you bad, they don't mess with you.
That's right. That's right. We're bad, huh? That's right.

Mr. WILDER: We don't want no (censored), neither.

Mr. PRYOR: That's right.

Mr. WILDER: Darn right.

GROSS: Let me ask you about working with Richard Pryor. You made several
films with him, including "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy." How were you
first paired?

Mr. WILDER: I was in Paris, doing publicity for some film, and I got a call
from Alan Ladd Jr., who was then the head of 20th Century Fox, and he said, `I
have a script here called'--it had another name, something--"The Super Chief,"
it was called "The Super Chief"--`and I have to decide--I want you to play the
part, but you have to tell me that you want to, and I'll send someone now,
from Los Angeles, with the script. Please read it as soon as you can and call
me, because by Tuesday I have to tell an agent whether or not I want his
client to play the part if you turn it down.'

So he sent me the script, I read it and I called him and I said, `I want to do
this.' And when I got back to Los Angeles I told him how much I liked the
script, but I said, `You're going to be in a lot of trouble if you don't get
the right person to play'--well, I--the Richard Pryor part--and I said, `The
only one I can think of is Richard Pryor.' And he said, `That's who we're
thinking of.' And then they offered it to Richard and he took it. And I met
him for the first time in Calgary, in Canada, a very quiet, modest meeting.
We gave each other a hug. He said how much he admired me and I said how much
I admired him, and we started working the next morning.

And we hit it off really well, and he taught me how to improvise on camera.
I'd improvised a lot in classes and at the "Actors' Studio," but I never did
it in front of the camera. I said a line in our first scene together, and
then he said something that wasn't in the script and I responded without
thinking. And then he responded to that, and then we went back to the script.

GROSS: There's a scene from "Silver Streak" that you describe in the book
where Richard Pryor wanted the scene changed, and...

Mr. WILDER: Oh, dear.

GROSS: ...I want you to describe the scene and how he changed it.

Mr. WILDER: Well, we'd finished filming at the train station in Toronto, and
Arthur Hiller said, `Let's run through that bathroom scene where you put on
the shoe polish, just lightly, just the words, so we have a sense of where
we're going.' It was the one scene that I was the most worried about, and I
thought, well, if Richard doesn't mind my putting on the shoe polish in order
to pass as black, then it must be OK, because he's the teacher here.

And we went in there and we read the scene, and Richard became more and more
morose. And when we walked out--and we were going to film this the next
morning, early--and we walked out across the street to the Royal York Hotel.
And I said, `Richard, what's the matter?' He said, `I'm going to hurt a lot
of black people doing this scene.' I said, `Didn't you read it before?' He
said, `Well, yeah, but sometimes I have people read it to me and I thought it
was OK at the time, but I'm going to hurt a lot of black people.' I said,
`Why? Tell me what's wrong with it.' `No, it's too late, too late.' I said,
`Tell me what's wrong, Richard. I can call Alan Ladd Jr.; I can call Arthur
Hiller, our director. Tell me.' He said, `It's too late, Gene. It's just
too late.' I said, `I'm in room'--whatever it was--`if you change your mind,
would you call me?'

Fifteen minutes later, he said, `Can I come down and see you?' I said, `Of
course.' He came down, I said, `Are you going to tell me what's wrong?' He
said, `Yeah. You're in there in the bathroom, in the men's room, and you're
putting shoe polish on your face, and a white man comes in and he doesn't
think that it's anything unusual because that's how niggers behave, right?' I
said, `Well, what should it be?' He said, `It should be a black man who comes
in, who sees what you're doing, knows right away that you're white and doing
this because you must be in some kind of trouble.' And he says, `I don't know
what your trouble is, mister, but you got to keep time with the music. You
got to keep time.' And I said, `Well, that's a better scene.' So we called
Arthur Hiller that night. Arthur Hiller recast the part and the next morning,
we did the scene as Richard described it.

GROSS: Let's hear that scene from "Silver Streak" with Richard Pryor and my
guest, Gene Wilder.

(Soundbite of "Silver Streak")

Mr. WILDER: I can't pass for black.

Mr. PRYOR: Who you tellin'? I didn't say I was going to make you black. I
said I was going to get you on the train. Now we got to make them cops think
you're black.

Mr. WILDER: It'll never work, never.

Mr. PRYOR: What? Are you afraid it won't come off?

Mr. WILDER: That's a good joke. That's humorous.

Mr. PRYOR: Like that, huh?

Mr. WILDER: May I speak?

Mr. PRYOR: Yeah.

Mr. WILDER: This is crazy! It'll never work. Don't you understand?

Mr. PRYOR: Are you kiddin'? Look at that. Al Jolson made a million bucks
lookin' like that. That's bad, man. You're looking good. Now here, take
this radio. When you step out of here, you got to step out of here like
Cain's (censored), right? You bad. And just move with the rhythm of the
music. Let me see you try it. Step to the music. Yeah. Stop. How come you
whiteys got such a tight ass, man? How you going to walk out of here with a
tan face and that white walk? Just get into the music. Come on, George, come
on. Yeah, now try it. Don't you feel it? Yeah, yeah. Needs work, George,
needs a lot of work. You know that.

GROSS: That's Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in a scene from "Silver Streak."
Wilder has written a new memoir called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Gene Wilder, and he's written a memoir called "Kiss Me
Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art."

Let's go back to your very early days. You wrote about your mother; she had
her first heart attack when you were eight, and you say her heart specialist
told you, `Don't ever argue with your mother. You might kill her. Try to
make her laugh.' How did that affect you, hearing that?

Mr. WILDER: You know, I can imagine what it did. This was a big man, a
heavy-set, fat heart specialist who was sweating like a pig after he helped
bring my mother home from the hospital. And he took me by the arm, and the
sweat was dripping down his face onto my cheek, and he said, `Don't ever get
angry with your mother, 'cause you might kill her.' What effect that had on
me, I can speculate, but that's too long a story. It was enormous; it had an
enormous effect on me.

But the second thing, `Try to make her laugh,' that was the first time--and I
did try--it was the first time I ever tried consciously to make someone else
laugh. And when I was successful, after peeing in her pants, she'd say, `Oh,
Jerry, now look what you've made me do,' and she'd run off to the bathroom.
And you know, when your mother gives you confidence about anything that you
do, you carry that confidence with you, and she made me believe that I could
make someone laugh. But those days, I was thinking more in terms of being a
comedian, I think. But when I saw, at 16--I started studying acting at 13,
but when I saw "Death of a Salesman" at 16, it changed my whole conception of
acting, performing. I didn't want to be a comedian. I wanted to be an actor,
maybe a comic actor, but a real actor. By real, I mean, not a comedian. I
wanted to be an actor.

GROSS: When you were 18, you developed a compulsion to pray, and you say even
though you weren't religious?

Mr. WILDER: No.

GROSS: You just compulsively prayed, sometimes for hours, and it got to a
point where you didn't even see it as holy. I mean, you saw yourself as being
driven by a demon that was...

Mr. WILDER: That's...

GROSS: ...compelling you to pray. Would you describe what that sensation
was?

Mr. WILDER: Well, it hit, I think, on the 21st of March, oddly enough, in my
freshman year at the University of Iowa, and I had this need to pray, and I
didn't know why. And then it became so severe that I was praying for 30
minutes, 45 minutes, an hour. I would pray in front of the building I was
going to go into for my classes, even though everyone was watching me. I
didn't pray it out loud, but I was praying. My lips were moving, and after a
while, after it became an ordeal of praying for hours at a time, I said, `This
is not anything holy. I'm not praying to God. I don't know why I'm praying.'
But when I went into the Army--it was not wartime--after college, I chose the
neuropsychiatric hospital to work in. I should have been a patient, but I
chose to work there. And I saw these young men doing the craziest things,
kneeling in front of the television set and praying. I said, `Yes, that young
man is crazy, but it's not that much more crazy than what I do, or did.' I was
still doing it, but not to the extent that I was doing it at school. And
people who were afraid to step--one boy in particular, Roger, I remember,
couldn't step on a crack. I would say, `What do you think is going to happen
to you if you do if you do?' He said, `I don't know, but please don't make
me.'

Anyway, when I got out of the Army, I went to see a therapist and she said,
`What seems to be the trouble?' And I said, `I want to give all my money
away.' And she said, `How much do you have?' And I said, `I owe $300.' And
she stared at me, for several seconds, and she said, `I see. Well, let's get
to work. And maybe by the time you do have some money, you'll be wise enough
to know what to do with it. In the meantime, tell me about this and this and
this and this.'

GROSS: When you were going through that period of compulsive praying, what
were your prayers? What were you chanting or thinking?

Mr. WILDER: I couldn't think of what I had done that was so horrible that I
had to have God's forgiveness, so I would try to cover all ground imaginable.
`Did I offend her? Him? My mother? My father? My sister? My teacher? Was
anything I was doing unholy?'

I honestly didn't know what it was until years later when, after seven and a
half years of therapy, I realized, when I was saying goodbye to my therapist
Marshie(ph), she said, `Do you know why this all happened in the first place?'
And I said, `I think so.' And she said, `What? Tell me.' And I said, `What
right did I have to be happy when my mother was suffering every day of her
life?' 'Cause it seemed that every time I was really happy, the demon came,
although I wasn't aware of that connection at the time. But my mother was so
sick and suffering so much that I didn't think I had the right to be happy,
and I found a very diabolical way of making myself suffer, not in the same way
she was suffering, but to prevent me from enjoying my own life.

GROSS: Gene Wilder is my guest.

In your memoir, you write toward the end about your marriage to Gilda Radner
and what it was like to watch her get really sick and then die. How did you
meet her?

Mr. WILDER: I met her on the first night of filming--of night filming on the
film called "Hanky Panky" that Sidney Poitier was directing. And it's funny.
I was in costume and makeup--my tuxedo and makeup because I'd done a few shots
before she arrived, and she told me later that she cried all the way in, in
the car, because she knew that she was going to fall in love with me and want
to get married. I said, `Now, Gilda, now you're act--this is an
exaggeration.' She said, `No, no. It's true. I was unhappy--I was married,
I was unhappy and I knew I was going to fall in love with you.' I asked her
that maybe a year or two later--I would always qu--she said, `Yes, it's true.
I did feel that way.'

That's how we met, doing the film. And then she couldn't be alone. She
wanted to be--I mean, attach herself, graft herself onto me. And I thought,
`This is never going to work.' I loved her--that's the truth--but I didn't
think I would ever be able to live with her because she couldn't do anything
without me, it seemed. And then one day, I was going to go with her to France
for my birthday and I was really tired after finishing a film. And my sister
Corinne had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and I wanted to go in and see
her in New York.

And the dog, Gilda's dog Sparkle, was sniffing around in the airport and ate
some--I thought didn't eat; Gilda thought she did eat--rat poison. And she
rushed her to a vet and she told me, `You go on ahead, honey. You're tired.
I know you love me and you know I love you, and I'll be fine. You just relax
and enjoy yourself.' And I thought--I waited for a year and a half for words
like that from her, `I'll be all right. I'm fine. I know you love me; you
know I love you.' And I came back from France and proposed to her. And then
a short while later, she was diagnosed--unfortunately 10 months too late, she
was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer.

GROSS: She had been taking hormone shots to help her get pregnant.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah. Yeah, she was...

GROSS: Did the doctors think that that was related to the cancer?

Mr. WILDER: Some people do; some people don't. I don't have any definitive
answer for you. But I had to give her an injection every evening at 6:00. We
did this two times.

GROSS: These were fertility injections.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah. She was in the in vitro fertilization program, and it
nearly drove us apart, too. She wanted that baby so badly and it didn't work.
Oddly enough, when we were doing "Haunted Honeymoon" in London, she did become
pregnant for about 10 days, but then she lost it.

And when she came home after that--when we came home, on January 6th, 1986,
she felt a kind of a dizziness and fell asleep in the car on our way to play
tennis with our little group of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft and Carl Reiner
and Estelle Reiner, and then she would wake up. And then her thighs started
to hurt and then it would go away. And she went to see every doctor, every
gastroenterologist, every gynecologist. They all said, `Oh, she's very highly
sensitive, very artistic. No, there's nothing wrong. Epstein-Barr virus,
whatever that is,' the doctor said, `if there is such a thing.' Ten months
she went without diagnosis, and then stage IV ovarian, when her tummy was
protruded and they found a grapefruit-size tumor inside.

But anyway, my odyssey with Gilda was wonderful, funny, tortuous, painful and
sad. It was--it went the full gamut.

GROSS: I thought it was interesting that six weeks before she died, she
started taking singing lessons.

Mr. WILDER: Yeah. And what she worked on was "When You Wish Upon a Star."
I'd hear her practicing that. And when the piano teacher--the singing teacher
came over, he'd play that and she would sing it and he would work on her voice
singing it. And she had a wonderful voice. I think she was doing it just
because she wanted to have someone play while she sang. But that was the song
that she picked; still magical thinking, `If I wish upon a star, maybe the
cancer will go away.'

GROSS: My guest is Gene Wilder, and he's written a memoir called "Kiss Me
Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art." Let's take a short break here
and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "When You Wish Upon a Star")

GROSS: My guest is actor Gene Wilder. He's written a new memoir called "Kiss
Me Like a Stranger." When we left off, we were talking about his late wife,
Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer.

She was 43 when she died in 1989, and--I mean, you lost your wife. Her death
was so publicly mourned. She had so many fans in the country. And I was just
wondering, how did that complicate your own recovery from that? Because, you
know, when someone is famous, their death becomes something of a public event
no matter how private the funeral itself is because the grief is felt by so
many people. And it's written up in newspapers and magazines and so on. So
how did that affect your ability to do what you emotionally needed to do
during that period?

Mr. WILDER: After she died, you mean?

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. WILDER: Well, there wasn't a funeral, per se. I buried her three miles
from the house that she had bought just shortly before we met. It was an old
house, old colonial house, 1734. And there were just a few friends at the
funeral, a non-sectarian cemetery. And an old friend of hers from junior high
school or high school was the rabbi in town, the town that we lived in, and he
performed the service. And I came home and I thought, `If I go back to
California,' where I had a small house, `I don't think I'll ever come east
again.' So I decided to stay and go through the halls and the stairways and
talk to her, holler, express some of my anger and make sure there were no
ghosts in the hallways that I should ever be afraid of.

And then I found out--this sounds strange, but I found out she had left me the
house. We never talked about her dying and what she was going to leave me or
I would ever leave her. We just didn't talk about those things. And then her
business manager said, `You know, Gilda left you that house.' That's when I
decided to stay and test it out. And after about a month, the roots grew and
I didn't ever want to live anywhere else for the rest of my life. Travel,
yes, but not to live anywhere else.

GROSS: After--not long after Gilda died, you got cancer; you got
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And you ended up getting that very extreme form of
chemo that's required in order to do--Was it stem cell transplant?

Mr. WILDER: Mm-hmm. It wasn't soon after. She died in '89, and I got
non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2000.

GROSS: Oh, God. Was it that recent?

Mr. WILDER: Yeah. And for your sake and all your listeners, I've just passed
the five-year mark and I'm now what you call--well, it's called complete
remission. But I'm cured. I'm fine. I'm one of the lucky ones.

GROSS: Good. Good, good.

Mr. WILDER: But it wasn't--it was 2000 that I did it. And--anyway, your
question was about?

GROSS: Well, I was wondering if, having watched her go through cancer and
watching her get sicker and sicker, if that affected how you wanted to handle
yourself when you were sick?

Mr. WILDER: It did. I thought either it would make things much worse than
they would be, or it would be much better for me. And it turns out it was
much better. I wasn't afraid of it. I had seen that rotten son of a bitch
earlier--the cancer, I mean. I saw what it did to her. And at that time, I
was in love, and still am, with my wife, Karen Wilder, and I thought, `I've
had a very good life and a very good career. And if I shouldn't survive, I
have no regrets.' But I did survive.

Also, part of the fear was taken away because when Gilda was going through
chemo, there wasn't anything that they could do to stop the nausea except to
give Ativan, which was just an anti-anxiety. When I got the chemo, they gave
me something called Zofran. I was never sick; not one day, not even one hour.
And I had heavy chemo. Now it doesn't work that way with everyone, and now
today they even have--they've perfected it to a greater extent, but I was not
sick at all. And I wasn't afraid of it. I mean, I was, I suppose, fatalistic
about it. I was happy and if I would live longer, then that would be a
wonderful thing. But if I didn't, I had no complaints.

GROSS: Well, I'm really glad you're past that five-year mark.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

GROSS: That's really good news.

Gene Wilder, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

GROSS: Gene Wilder has written a new memoir called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger:
My Search for Love and Art."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with Gene Wilder singing "Pure
Imagination" from the soundtrack of "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory."

(Soundbite of "Pure Imagination")

Mr. WILDER: Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three. (Singing) Come
with me, and you'll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you'll
see into your imagination.

We'll begin with a spin, traveling in the world of my creation. What we'll
see will defy explanation.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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