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Actor Gene Wilder: 'Kiss Me Like a Stranger'

Born Jerome Silberman, Gene Wilder made his film debut as a kidnap victim in Bonnie and Clyde, in 1967. Wilder is best known for his work with Mel Brooks, in the films Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers. But he also anchored the children's classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, still popular today.


Other segments from the episode on December 29, 2005

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 29, 2005: Interview with Gene Wilder; Interview with Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis.


DATE December 29, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

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

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

We're ending 2005 by featuring some of our favorite interviews of the year. I
spoke with Gene Wilder last March after the publication of his memoir, "Kiss
Me Like a Stranger." The title was suggested by his wife, Gilda Radner, three
weeks before she died of ovarian cancer in 1989.

Gene Wilder made his movie debut in "Bonnie and Clyde." He starred in Mel
Brooks' 1968 film "The Producers," which was adapted into the hit Broadway
show and has now been adapted back into a movie. In Mel Brooks' film "Young
Frankenstein," Wilder played Dr. Frankenstein. He starred with Richard Pryor
in "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy" and portrayed the candy maker in the 1971
film "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory," which was remade this year.

Let's start with one of Gene Wilder's classic scenes from "The Producers."
Zero Mostel plays an 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 told me that when he met Mel Brooks, Wilder was in a
production of "Mother Courage" that also featured Anne Bancroft. Her
boyfriend was Mel Brooks.

Mr. WILDER: 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: 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: My guest is Gene Wilder. Here's a scene from "Young Frankenstein," in
which Wilder played the grandson of the infamous mad scientist. He's at the
train station in Transylvania, meeting his new assistant, played by Marty

(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

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

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, 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

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

Mr. WILDER: Yeah.

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

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: My guest is Gene Wilder. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Gene Wilder. Here's a scene from "Silver Streak," one of
the films he starred in with Richard Pryor. They're on the lam, and Wilder
is trying to disguise himself as a black man.

(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: 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 and I have to decide--I want you to play the part, but you
have to tell me that you want to.' So he sent me the script, I read it and I
called him and I said, `I want to do this.' 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: 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. In 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: Gene Wilder recorded last March after the publication of his memoir,
"Kiss Me Like a Stranger." We'll continue the interview in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

Here's Gene Wilder singing on the soundtrack of "Willy Wonka."

(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. If you want to view
paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want
to change the world? There's nothing to it.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis reminisce
about growing up in New Orleans. And we hear more of our interview with Gene
Wilder as we continue our week of favorite interviews from 2005.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview
I recorded last March with actor Gene Wilder just after the publication of his
memoir, "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."

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

Mr. WILDER: Thank you.

GROSS: Gene Wilder recorded last March, after the publication of his memoir
"Kiss Me Like a Stranger."

Coming up, musicians Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. reminisce about
growing up in New Orleans. This is FRESH AIR.

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

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Filler: By policy of WHYY, this information is restricted and has
been omitted from this transcript
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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