Like every other kid, I loved the original Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. The day I made my First Communion, my parents said I could have anything I wanted for dinner. This was a big deal. I requested Chicken McNuggets and fries from McDonald’s, adding that I wanted to consume this sophisticated feast on a snack tray in the living room so I could watch Willy Wonka on TV. That was about as Beyonce as my childhood ever got and it was magnificent.
Gene Wilder stole the film with his impeccable comic timing, his edgy irreverence, and those striking features—the expressive eyes, the deliciously chaotic hair. But Willy Wonka was not my first introduction to Gene Wilder and his gentle comic brilliance.
My father was a huge comedy fan, coming up with people like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Richard Pryor. He especially loved the older, classic comics like Sid Ceasar and Milton Berle and, of course, Mel Brooks who held a special place in his heart. I was probably seven the first time I saw Blazing Saddles. Parenting in the 70s and 80s had a few more grey areas than it does today. Seatbelts were an urban myth, the garage was one, giant explosives factory, and parents actually believed you when you said you were going over to your friend’s house “to study” and not actually going to stand around in the parking lot of the bowling alley with your friends hoping someone would buy you beer.
My dad, my brother, and I would watch Blazing Saddles together, my mom would quietly slink away to the bedroom happy to have five goddamn minutes to herself. Most of the jokes went sailing out over my head into another galaxy, so it took a few years for me to connect the dots between comedy and “social commentary about racism.” Though a horse taking a punch to the snout, an epic pie fight, and a scene devoted to campfire flatulence were all things that fell square into my and my brother’s level of comprehension and comic appreciation.
Gene Wilder stole that movie too. The washed-up, washed-out, slyly hilarious Waco Kid was a character riddled with comic subtleties that made my father shake with laughter. We’d all quote lines for days after, my brother and I trading them back and forth getting my dad to join in. It’s hard to say who was more amused: us, high on the adrenaline of attention that comes from comedy or him, admiring his weird, funny little creations who so clearly just wanted to keep him laughing.
My dad was a complicated guy. He carried some heavy burdens. He could be silly, witty, sarcastic, and even darkly funny at times. The thing was, I wanted him to be those things all the time. I didn’t want him to slip back into that place of remove and distance where he seemed to be so often. I wanted life to feel like a Mel Brooks movie night.
Gene Wilder gave the world unforgettable, zany characters. He gave me unforgettable memories of my dad–happy.