Whatever you might think about Johnny Depp and/or Timothée Chalamet, both of whom have portrayed Roald Dahl’s character Willy Wonka, neither compares with the late Gene Wilder.
Wilder originated the character in Mel Stuart’s 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” an adaptation of Dahl’s 1964 novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” And that portrayal, besides defining the role, remains one of Wilder’s most memorable performances.
Of course, as filmmaker Ron Franks emphasizes in his documentary “Remembering Gene Wilder,” the actor had already made an impression by appearing in two 1967 films. He played a small role in Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” and he achieved starring status by co-starring with Zero Mostel in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.”
The teaming with Brooks was providential because, as Franks’ documentary makes clear, it led to two of their most memorable successes: the Western satire “Blazing Saddles” and the horror satire “Young Frankenstein” (both of which were released in 1974.
Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder – whose father was a Jewish Russian immigrant – changed his name when he began studying acting with Lee Strasberg in New York. Soon he was snaring stage roles, one of which, “Mother Courage,” paired him with the actress Anne Bancroft.
It was Bancroft who suggested to her then-boyfriend (and later husband), Brooks that he consider Wilder for “The Producers.” And the partnership began.
Wilder would go on to have a long career in films he directed, such as 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover,” and in films that paired him with the likes of Richard Pryor (“Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy”).
Frank, who has admitted wanting to make his documentary a “love letter” to Wilder, fills his film with interviews of those who have nothing but good to say. There’s nary a mention of his two first marriages, both of which ended in divorce.
From Brooks to Alan Alda, Carol Kane to Brooks’ widow Karen Boyer, the consensus is that Wilder was dedicated to his craft and loyal to his friends and family.
If there is a doleful feel to the film, it involves Wilder’s sadly short, five-year marriage to the comic actress Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. And then there were his final few years when, before dying in 2016 at age 83, he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.
But he left behind a film legacy that could be best captured in a line he delivered as Willy Wonka himself: “A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.”
“Remembering Gene Wilder” will screen Saturday as part of the opening-night ceremony of the 2024 Spokane Jewish Film Festival, which will be held from 6 to 9:30 p.m. at the Montvale Event Center, 1019 W. First Ave. The festival, which will run through Jan. 31, then Feb. 5-8, will feature both in-person and online events. For full scheduling and ticket information, go online at sajfs.org.