As a child, I was painfully shy. I had several close friends but relied mostly on my brothers and sisters for playmates. We had fabulous imaginary forts and tree houses and romps in the woods. We rode our bikes and played pirates and cowboys and Indians and all sorts of fantasy games inspired by TV shows on the air at the time such as I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched.
I also spent hours with my nose buried in books, sometimes reading 4 or 5 books a week. One of my favorites was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed by Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.
When the story made its TV debut in 1975, I was eleven years old. I had a vivid, colorful imagination, encouraged by my mother and the playtime with my siblings, but nothing prepared me for seeing Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in living color. It blew my mind in a way nothing up to that point had, except maybe The Wizard of Oz. To see the strange and curious Willy Wonka come to life I could imagine him no other way except as actor Gene Wilder played him in the weird and wonderful show.
As I became a teenager, Gene Wilder movies figured prominently. It gradually dawned on me that being weird, funny and a little off was OK, and in fact, maybe a desirable thing. Which was good because I was definitely a weird kid.
Young Frankenstein became a favorite movie in my family. We’d laugh hysterically repeating lines from that movie like “Werewolf! There wolf!” I sought out the movies Gene Wilder starred in because I knew they would make me laugh.
It was inspiring to me that this pop-eyed, frizzed haired zany man was a movie star. He wasn’t cast for his looks, but for his personality. His humor wasn’t forced, and he didn’t rely on profanity. He was truly a silly funny guy who made his quirky personal style the basis for laughter. I always felt better after I watched one of his movies: it gave me hope that, as different as I was from my siblings and friends, it would be ok. The taunt of “you’re weird” didn’t hurt so much.
His relationship with the unconventional Gilda Radner was also inspiring, proving there was a special someone out there for everyone.
The remarkable impact Gene Wilder had on pop culture cannot be emphasized enough, and I am so sad to hear of his passing. The world has lost a man who made us laugh but more importantly gave all us weirdoes permission to be goofy and unconventional. RIP Gene Wilder, your laughter, light and quirkiness will be deeply missed.
(6/11/33 - 8/29/16)
Rock 'n' Roll/Automotive Journalist, Influencer, Editor and Publisher of Gearhead Magazine,