The first thing you notice about Gene Wilder are his eyes. Blue and limpid, they radiate a serenity one does not immediately associate with this most antic of comic screen actors, taking you in with a gaze at once hard, searching and kind. On occasion, they light up like braziers in a Transylvanian night.
Gene lives in the backcountry of Stamford with his wife Karen, a former speech therapist he met in 1988 while working on the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil. It was the third of four films teaming Wilder with Richard Pryor. Gene was playing a deaf man in the movie, and he was seeking professional advice on how to assay his role in a convincing, noninsulting manner. He and Karen immediately hit it off. The Wilders have been married for fifteen years now, and their affection appears as total as that of a pair of smitten teens. Just what kind of Hollywood marriage is this?
“No matter how one answers that question, it comes out corny and trite,” Gene says. “What are the secrets of love? I’d put that in a book, not two sentences.”
“Maybe it’s the house,” offers Karen, trying to help out. “It just brings love.”
“No, it’s not the house,” her husband replies with a chuckle. “The house is nice, but it’s not
The house is warm and comfy, bespeaking an interest in matters other than Gene’s film work, which still defines his public image since his last big-screen appearance, in 1991’s Another You. In fact, once you get past the inclination to search the walls for revolving bookcases (“Put zee candle back!”) or snozzberry-flavored wallpaper, you have a good sense of where the movie star’s head has been since forsaking Hollywood for Fairfield County.
In the living room is a vast canvas depicting two men in a field playing cards. The trees in the background are impressionistic, but the figures in the foreground are vividly portrayed. Gene calls attention to the reserved expression of one player and the joy of the other as he is about to lay down his trump.
“You can see the twinkle of his eye even though he’s in profile, which the painter suggests with just a single dot of white,” he says. “Details like that fascinate me.”
Gene has been busy the last few years with paintings of his own, some of which line the walls of the house. Portraits all, including a self-portrait that captures Gene’s famously unruly flaxen mop with a few deft, broad swipes of maize. The canvases are done in watercolor, of people young and old, male and female, the shapes and colors striking in their abstract way of capturing a personality, a mood. In each, the eyes are the strongest feature, looking at the viewer as if establishing a silent connection.
“He is intensely interested in exploring the psychology of the people he knows best,” says Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, which hosted the first-ever exhibition of Gene’s portraits in 2005. The show drew more than 600 people its first day. Hyland says that many people were impressed by the boldly immersive nature of the pieces on display: “You had this unusual situation of a person who is a creative, amazingly talented actor who turns his sights on other people.”
Gene, who has been painting since the 1980s, declaims any opening night jitters in New Britain: “No, because I’m not a painter, I’m an actor,” he says. “And I’m not an actor, I’m a writer. I can always pass it off as something else.”
Writing has actually defined Gene’s career of late. Last year saw the publication of his bestselling memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, a startlingly frank, beguilingly episodic account of his acting career, his private life and their various points of intersection, recently out in paperback. Now the seventy-three-year-old is following that success by launching his latest artistic incarnation, as a novelist, with My French Whore, a romance set in World War I. It hit bookstores on Valentine’s Day.
Gene explains the plot: “A young soldier from Milwaukee, Wisconsin [Gene’s own birthplace], in 1918, very unhappily married. He enlists and goes to France, in the trenches, and then most of the story takes place in Germany when he’s assuming another character, a spy, pretending to be to save his life.”
It is emphatically not a comedy. His editor at St. Martin’s Press, Elizabeth Beier, recalls surprise when the manuscript landed on her desk. “It’s a pretty rich book,” she says. “He’s a very beautiful, clean, clear, wistful writer. That comes through in both his fiction and nonfiction. He has a very romantic way of looking at things. You can see that in Kiss Me Like a Stranger, in the way he wrote about the relationships he had in his own life.”
My French Whore began as an idea in 1969 while Gene was in Paris filming Start the Revolution without Me with Donald Sutherland. For a time he tinkered with a screenplay version that he called Hesitation Waltz. Gene liked the idea, “an impossible love affair that never actually happened,” but it needed work. “The idea was good, but not the screenplay,” he says.
Thus stalled on Hesitation, Gene wrote other screenplays. “The next one was Tough Guy, better, still no good. It was a good concept. A B-picture actor who plays this tough guy, he’s really not a gangster, then he gets in trouble with real gangsters in Paris. The idea was okay, the script wasn’t. The studio was right, it didn’t want to do it, but the third one … ”The third one was Young Frankenstein, a classic scare comedy released in 1974, which became a career moment for Gene, earning him an Oscar nomination for writing (he previously was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Producers). Gene credits Mel Brooks, co-screenwriter and director on Young Frankenstein, for much of the script’s success.“The idea, of course, was very good,” Gene explains. “When Mel started working on it, after I wrote the first draft, he would say: ‘This scene stinks. You’ve got to have a villain. Remember Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein? Yeah, okay, make it.’
“I’d write all day, he’d come in after his dinner, say ‘Yeah, okay’ and move on. ‘Now this next scene, there’s a big hole here … ’
“I’d go away, write all day the next day, show it to him that night. That’s how we did it. If it had been anyone but Mel, I would have had a hard time.”
Wilder’s past has reemerged with a vengeance of late. There was the smash musical remake of 1968’s The Producers on Broadway, made into a movie last year. Also last year came a remake of the 1971 cult classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Wilder was openly disappointed with the latter remake, but it served to remind people what made the original so special. Then two late-1970s features starring and directed by Gene came out on DVD, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (one of Karen’s favorite Gene films) and The World’s Greatest Lover, both with director’s commentaries.
Also last year, in a widely publicized ranking of the 100 greatest film performances of all time, Premiere magazine listed Gene’s performance in Young Frankenstein in ninth place, just above Robert De Niro’s in Raging Bull. “It’s a comic performance that borders on the cosmic,” Premiere opined.
Gene bursts out laughing when told of the ranking. Incredibly, he claims not to have heard about this before. “I should have asked for more money,” he deadpans.
Pat Collins, a film and theater critic and longtime friend of the Wilders, is not surprised by Gene’s enduring popularity. “He was an original,” she explains. “There was no one on screen like him before The Producers, and no one like him since, no one who has been talked about as the next Gene Wilder.”
That has a lot to do with his unique approach to comedy acting on screen, she says. “There’s a lot of heart in Gene’s comedy. He’s an irony-free zone. His comedy doesn’t come from devaluing others or depreciating others,” she adds. “It comes from the day-to-day experience of putting your heart out there and hoping no one tramples on it.”
Of course, Gene has had his share of heartbreaks on screen and off, much of which he details in Kiss Me Like a Stranger. None was more public than, or as deeply felt as, the death from cancer in 1989 of his third wife, the comedienne Gilda Radner, a much-beloved original in her own right and the woman who introduced Gene to Stamford. The farmhouse he and Karen share was originally Gilda’s and willed to Gene. For years, Gene worked with other friends of Gilda’s to create a series of convalescence centers, called Gilda’s Clubs, while picking up the pieces of his own life with considerable assistance from Karen.
Theirs is a partnership of kindred spirits, something Gene realized the first time he visited Karen’s Manhattan apartment and spied a tin of his favorite tea, Twinings Earl Grey, in her kitchen. “I went: ‘Uh-oh, something’s going on here,’ ” he recalls.
“They have the same sort of personality,” notes Sheila May, a friend of the Wilders and co-owner of Therese Saint Clair in Greenwich. “They both are very well-spoken, gentle people.
“Karen is bubbly,” Sheila continues. “Gene is more reflective, shy actually. You always read that people play their opposite personalities. Gene has a wonderful sense of humor, but he’s quiet.”
“When I met Karen, I thought she was an excellent, excellent choice,” Pat Collins says. “Because after Gilda, I don’t think any actress could possibly have made that marriage work. They would have been competing with a beloved ghost, not only with Gene but also with his friends and everyone else in the mix. Karen, on the other hand, is so genuine, so comfortable in her own skin. She’s not dazzled by the superficiality of Hollywood glamour and fame. I knew she was the right person for him.”
While Gene paints or writes in his study, Karen can be found in the couple’s extensive gardens, where she spends hours tending beds of annuals and perennials. Or else she’s at the Bartlett Arboretum, a North Stamford tree preserve and horticulture education center where she serves on the board. This past winter she was cochairman of its gala fundraiser.
“She has a very strong belief in providing for the legacy of our future, keeping this ninety-one-acre site as a place where people of all ages can enjoy and learn about trees, plants and the environment,” says Scott Neff, the Bartlett’s development director.
For Karen, the Bartlett is both a resource and a cause. “I’m a conservationist at heart,” she says. “I don’t like the United States becoming a parking lot. I believe the garden is a wonderful place to live. It’s a paradise here, and if I could do something for a not-for-profit organization, picking something close to my home and close to my heart is important. So I picked the Bartlett.”
Another Stamford resource both Wilders enjoy is the Avon Theatre, a downtown movie house for sixty years, which reopened in 2004 to show the old movies and independent films the couple prefers to mainstream Hollywood fare.
“They definitely have a great affinity for movies new and old, be it outstanding classics that need revisiting or the edgy new foreign or art picture,” says the Avon’s programming director, Adam Birnbaum. “They are both backward and forward in their love of cinema.”
“He still sees loads of films,” says Bob Donnalley, an arts patron and friend of Gene and Karen’s from Greenwich. “He is a voter for the Oscars, and he takes that seriously.” (“The Illusionist is about the best picture I’ve seen in four years,” says Gene.)
Gene has also been working with the Avon on a series of screenings called “Gene’s Picks.” “I’m devoting it to films people have heard of, probably, but that most haven’t seen, like The Merry Widow and Topper Takes a Trip,” he says.
Gene spoke at Avon screenings for Willy Wonka and The Producers and will do it again for the last of “Gene’s Picks,” Young Frankenstein, chosen after some discussion about going with the less-known Start the Revolution without Me, which, like Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970), is a less-heralded Wilder film Gene feels merits a second look.
Before making it in movies, Gene honed his acting chops on a number of short-lived Broadway productions, the last of which, 1966’s Luv, was, ironically, seen by future friends Bob and Cory Donnalley during their honeymoon. When Gene next acted on stage, thirty years later, the Donnalleys traveled to London to see him in Neil Simon’s Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
Gene acted again much closer to home in 2001, starring in a performance of classic one-act plays at the Westport Country Playhouse, where he previously appeared “below the title” in the early 1960s. This time, as both the star and adapter for modern audiences, Gene chose a pair of plays by his favorite author, Anton Chekhov, The Proposal and The Dangers of Tobacco, and a goofy farce by Georges Feydeau, Caught with His Trance Down. A fourth play, George Bernard Shaw’s The Music Cure, featured members of the cast other than Gene.
The production reunited Gene with Carol Kane, his costar in The World’s Greatest Lover, and was directed by Gene Saks. It was most memorable, perhaps, for Wilder’s one-man performance of The Dangers of Tobacco, the only noncomic offering. The play is a harrowing examination of suffering from ill health that Gene knew all too well from his then-recent brush with cancer, overcome with aggressive stem-cell therapy. His adaptation of Chekhov’s work personalized the experience to his own.
“The thing about Gene on stage is he plays the truth,” says Anne Keefe, associate artistic director at the playhouse. “The other actors, especially the young ones, were ‘going to school’ with him.”
But the truth hurt where Tobacco was concerned. “It was so true to life, they thought first of all he was having difficulty with it, reading notes as he was talking,” Karen recalls. “It was supposed to be like that. But it was so real — that he was having a breakdown — you felt like ‘Get off the stage!’ ”
The audience was so sobered by Tobacco they couldn’t relax and enjoy what followed, the larkish Caught with His Trance Down. “They hardly laughed,” Gene remembers. “So we cut Tobacco and started with The Proposal and ended with Trance. Everyone laughed up a storm.”
Keefe says Gene remains a friend of the playhouse, a member of its advisory committee and someone she hopes to have back in front of the footlights. “In a heartbeat,” she affirms.
Gene doesn’t rule out a return to acting, either on stage or film, but the prospect isn’t that alluring. The business of show business is all-consuming, one reason he prefers making his home in north Stamford rather than in southern California.
“I’m offered a lot of stuff,” he says. “If it’s not junk, then it’s explosions and special effects and violence. I’d rather write.”
Ironically, writing could be Wilder’s golden ticket back to the silver screen. When he was working on My French Whore, he got a call from his agent asking if he could shop the concept to filmmakers. Wilder said he could, but only to Alan Ladd Jr., an independent producer who, years before as head of 20th Century Fox, stepped in to finance Young Frankenstein at a critical juncture. Ladd liked what he read enough to say he wanted to make a movie, but only if Wilder wrote the script.
“So when I was working on the third draft of My French Whore, I also wrote the screenplay,” Gene says. “The screenplay sometimes helps the book — because I put scenes in the screenplay that weren’t in the book before, then used them in the book.”
While a film version of My French Whore remains tantalizing, Wilder isn’t interested in acting in it or directing it. Instead, he has already finished his next novel, The Woman Who Wouldn’t.
Kiss Me Like a Stranger … My French Whore … The Woman Who Wouldn’t. What’s up with these titles?
“But you don’t know what ‘she wouldn’t!’ ” Gene responds.
“Let me tell you,” Karen explains.
“A common conversation in this house is whenever someone says something, he says … ” “that would be a good title!” Gene cuts in, as if on cue. “I want it to be interesting, so someone will say ‘Oooh!’ ”
Gene not only credits Karen as his idea filter but also as his overall source of inspiration. She is his partner in determining what charities to get involved in. Connecticut-based food drives attract their support, as does the Produce a Cure Fund, an anticancer initiative started by one of Gene’s oncologists. When Turner Classic Movies interviews Gene about his career for an upcoming special, he plans to donate his fee to Produce a Cure.
Other screen legends may cloister themselves and screen past glories à la Norma Desmond or else submit to what Pat Collins calls “Hollywood Squares Syndrome,” doing whatever they can to stay in the public eye. Gene seems uninterested in his fame, except perhaps when it comes in the form of answering the doorbell on Halloween and hearing trick-or-treaters cry out: “Willy Wonka!” His creative drive, in the form of his books and paintings, is fueled by forces closer to home.
“Finding Karen was the biggest motivation, of course,” Gene says. “And having the stem-cell transplant. That was probably the second biggest. At that point, I didn’t know how much time I had left; I wanted to make it as beautiful and real as I could. Being here now with Karen and looking out the window, this is the best of life now. It’s not another movie.”