When Gene Wilder was 8 years old, his mother had a heart attack — and he took it upon himself to try to cheer her up. "It was the first time I ever tried consciously to make someone else laugh," Wilder said. "And when I was successful, after peeing in her pants, she'd say, 'Oh, Jerry, now look what you've made me do.' "
Wilder — who was born Jerome Silberman — went on to become a comic actor whose film credits included Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory and The Producers and Blazing Saddles. He died Monday of complications related to Alzheimer's.
In a 2005 interview with Fresh Air, Wilder said that those moments with his mother sustained him throughout his career. "When your mother gives you confidence about anything that you do, you carry that confidence with you," he told Terry Gross. "She made me believe that I could make someone laugh."
Though Wilder was known for his comedic roles, he also had a serious side. He described his marriage to comedian Gilda Radner as an "odyssey" that was "wonderful, funny, tortuous, painful and sad." Radner, his third wife, died from ovarian cancer in 1989. He remarried in 1991.
Wilder faced his own cancer diagnosis in 2000 — but he wasn't afraid, and was in remission when he spoke with Gross in 2005. "I've had a very good life and a very good career," he said. "I have no regrets."
Today, we'll listen back to Wilder's 2005 Fresh Air interview. Click the play link above to hear the conversation, or read some highlights below.
On meeting Mel Brooks, with whom he would later work on The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein
I was miscast in that production [of Mother Courage and Her Children] ... but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my — I can't say my day, it made my life, in a way.
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."
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."
I said, "I'd like that very much," and I went there one June weekend and he read me the first 30 pages of what was later called The Producers.
On auditioning for Zero Mostel, who played Max Bialystock in The Producers
Mel said, "I love you, but Zero doesn't know you, and he has the right of approval of whoever is 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've 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.
On what he learned from Mostel
You say the character [of Leo Bloom] was meek and insecure, and you could've 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 didn't go out to lunch, we always stayed in the studio ... 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. ...
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 [had] or whatever title they had in a company. It didn't scare him. Mel was very much the same way.
On getting the idea for Young Frankenstein
At the time, I didn't know why, but I know now that when I was a little boy, I was scared to death of the Frankenstein films ... and in all these years later, I wanted it to come out with a happy ending, and I think it was my fear of the Frankenstein movies when I was 8 and 9 and 10 years old that made me want to write that story.
On working with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak
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, 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.
On his relationship with Gilda Radner
I met her on the first night of filming ... 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 ... 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 ... she said, "Yes, it's true. I did feel that way."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we remember Gene Wilder and listen back to the interview we recorded in 2005. Wilder died yesterday of complications related to Alzheimer's. He was 83. Gene Wilder made his movie debut in "Bonnie And Clyde," starred in the Mel Brooks films "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles," played opposite Richard Pryor in "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy" and portrayed the candy-maker in "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory."
When we spoke, he had just written a memoir called "Kiss Me Like A Stranger." The title was suggested by his late wife Gilda Radner three weeks before she died in 1989. Radner was one of the original cast members of "Saturday Night Live." Let's start with one of 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 FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")
GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Let's assume just for the moment that you are a dishonest man.
ZERO MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) Assume away.
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) It's very easy. You simply raise more money than you really need.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) What do you mean?
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Well, you did it yourself, only you did it on a very small scale.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) What did I do?
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) You raised $2,000 more than you needed to produce your last play.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) So what? What did it get me? I'm wearing a cardboard belt.
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.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) But the play cost me only $60,000 to produce.
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) And how long did it run?
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) One night.
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) 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.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) But what if the play was a hit?
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) Well, then you'd go to jail.
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) Oh.
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) See, once the 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?
MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh. So in order for this scheme to work, we'd have to find a sure-fire flop.
WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) What scheme?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Gene Wilder, welcome to FRESH AIR.
WILDER: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Now, you met Mel Brooks through Anne Bancroft when you were in a production of "Mother Courage" together. How did Mel Brooks first tell you about "The Producers?"
WILDER: Well, first of all, I was miscast in that production by Jerome Robbins, but it was with Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend at the time was Mel Brooks, and that made my - I can't say my day - it made my life in a way. 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 have - 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'd 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: What was in that 30 pages that Mel Brooks read you of "The Producers?"
WILDER: The first scene where I entered the office and meet Zero Mostel. It's a wonderful scene. It's 27 pages. I thought, well, I don't know that much about movies, but this is a long scene to do all in one.
But we did, and it was great. And then Mel said, do you want to play this part of Leo Bloom? And I said, oh, yes, I would. And he said, all right. Don't take anything in the fall without calling me. And that fall, I was offered "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" with Kirk Douglas on Broadway. And I felt a little silly, but I called Mel, and I said you said I should call. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Can you get a two-week out in your contract, he said. I said, Mel, I'm not a star. They're not going to give me two weeks' notice out. I can ask for a four-week out. He said, all right. We'll have to live with it.
Three years went by. I never heard from him. One day, I was taking off my makeup in Murray Schisgal's play on Broadway called "Luv." And there was a knock on the door, and I opened it and there was Mel standing with a tall gentleman behind him. And I said, Mel. He said you don't think I forgot do you? He said I'm ready to do "Springtime For Hitler" now, and this is our producer Sidney Glazier. That's how it all started.
GROSS: Now, he offered you the part before he had finished reading it - writing it.
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.
MOSTEL: That's right.
GROSS: And 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?
WILDER: (Laughter) 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. 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. All my nervousness went out the window. And 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.
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 - Hy Brown Studios - and 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, and 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: Were there times when you had to stand up to them and to do something your own way...
GROSS: ...When they didn't want you to?
WILDER: With Mel, only one time and that was later on during "Young Frankenstein" - never with Zero and never with Mel except I was writing every day, and then Mel would come to the house and read what I'd written. And then he'd say, yeah, yeah, yeah, OK, yeah, OK. But we need a villain or we need whatever it was. And we'd talk a little bit and then he'd go away, and I would write all the next day. And he'd come and look at it. And then one day when he read the pages I had written about Dr. Frankenstein and the creature sing and dance to "Puttin' On The Ritz." He said, are you crazy? This is frivolous. You're just being frivolous. Well, my temperature rose, and after 20 minutes or so of arguing, my color went from red to, I think, blue or purple. I was - started screaming and then all of a sudden, he said, OK, it's in. And I said, well, why did you put me through this? And he said, I wasn't sure if it was right. And I thought if you didn't argue for it, then it was wrong. And if you did, it was right. So you convinced me.
GROSS: Well, this is such a classic scene. I mean, you as Dr. Frankenstein are presenting in a theater your creation - you know, the...
GROSS: ...Frankenstein monster played by Peter Boyle. And you're in - both in top hat and tails (laughter) and you introduced him. Then you sing a duet of "Puttin' On The Ritz" and, you know, do a little soft shoe. And it's really - it's really such a wonderful scene. So how did you come up with a way to - with an excuse to do it, you know, with the plot point to get in the production number?
WILDER: Because we had to convince the scientific members of Transylvania that with the procedure I was using on the creature, he could be taught to be a civilized human being, what I called a man about town. Instead of a monster who's going to kill their children, it was someone who could sing and dance.
GROSS: Well, I think - I think we have no choice here but to listen (laughter) to you and Peter Boyle doing "Puttin' On The Ritz" from the soundtrack of "Young Frankenstein."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUTTIN' ON THE RITZ")
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Ladies and gentlemen, up until now you've seen the creature perform the simple mechanics of motor activity. But for what you are about to see next, we must enter quietly into the realm of genius. Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et and messieurs, damen und herren, from what was once an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissues, may I now present a cultured, sophisticated man about town. Hit it.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein, singing) If you're blue and you don't know where to go to, why don't you go where fashion sits?
PETER BOYLE: (As Monster, singing) Puttin' on the the Ritz.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein, singing) Different types who wear a day coat pants with stripes and cut away coat perfect pants.
BOYLE: (As Monster, singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein, singing) Dressed up like a million-dollar trooper, trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper.
BOYLE: (As Monster, singing) Super duper.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein, singing) Come let's mix where Rockefellers walk with sticks or umbrellas in their mitts.
BOYLE: (As Monster, singing) Puttin' on the Ritz.
GROSS: That's Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle from the soundtrack of the film "Young Frankenstein." We'll hear more of my 2005 interview with Gene Wilder after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Gene Wilder, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2005. When we left off, we were talking about "Young Frankenstein" in which Wilder plays the grandson of the infamous mad scientist. Here's another scene from the film. He's at the train station in Transylvania, meeting his new assistant, played by Marty Feldman.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")
MARTY FELDMAN: (As Igor) Dr. Frankenstein.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) Frankenstein.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) You're putting me on.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No, it's pronounced Frankenstein.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) Do you also say you Froderick (ph)?
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) No, Frederick.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) Well, why isn't it Froderick Frankenstein?
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) It isn't. It's Frederick Frankenstein.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) I see.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) You must be Igor.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) No, it's pronounced Igor.
WILDER: (As Dr. Frankenstein) But they told me it was Igor.
FELDMAN: (As Igor) Well, they were wrong then, weren't they?
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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?
WILDER: Well, at the time I didn't know why. But I know now that when I was a little boy, I was scared to death of the "Frankenstein" film - films, actually, because there were four of them in particular that influenced me. And in all these years later, I wanted it to come out with a happy ending. And I think it was my fear of the "Frankenstein" movies when I was 8 and 9 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 Beaufort von Frankenstein 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, well, what makes you think of that? He said because I now handle you and Peter Marty.
WILDER: 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 quite a bit of money to direct "Young Frankenstein," and he took it.
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 going to 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...
WILDER: Oh, dear...
GROSS: I think you know the one, the walk this way joke.
WILDER: Now (laughter)...
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 because it seems like - I don't actually - 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?
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 - who's playing the doctor's assistant...
WILDER: Yeah, Igor.
GROSS: Your assistant, yeah.
WILDER: Or Igor - 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 says I'll tell you later. I'll tell you later. Just do it for now. So I took the cane and I followed Marty after the camera started rolling. And I walked this funny walk, and everyone laughed afterwards. And I said, now will you tell me what it means?
He says, a man who has a terrible case of hemorrhoids, he goes into a drug store and he says, have you got some talcum powder for me? I've got terrible hemorrhoids. And the pharmacist says, walk this way. He says, if I could walk that way I wouldn't need the talcum powder.
WILDER: 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 - another old, classic one, when you get to the - you get to the castle...
WILDER: Now, don't (laughter)...
GROSS: What - (laughter) there's these large...
WILDER: Yeah, door...
GROSS: Large, like, brass-door knockers...
WILDER: With knobs.
GROSS: ...With Knobs on them. And as as you're approaching the door, you lift...
WILDER: Teri Garr.
GROSS: Yeah, that's right. You lift Teri Garr out of the wagon that you've...
GROSS: ...Arrived in. And your head is kind of buried in her chest as...
GROSS: ...Igor knocks on the door. And you say...
GROSS: No, you tell it. You tell it.
WILDER: I say - 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 (imitating foreign accent) thank you, doctor.
GROSS: (Laughter) Now, how'd you guys come up with that one? It also sounds like this is a classic, yeah.
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: Now, I'm thinking you and Mel Brooks, you're both Jewish. But you're from very different parts of the United States and probably had different experiences growing up because he's...
GROSS: ...Very East Coast, very New York, very Borscht Belt, and you grew - was it Milwaukee?
WILDER: Milwaukee, Wis.
GROSS: Yeah. So, I mean, didn't have the Borscht Belt...
WILDER: No, no, no.
GROSS: ...Probably didn't know vaudeville as well as he did.
WILDER: No. Don't say as well, I didn't know it at all. I'd read about a few things, but that's all.
GROSS: So what were some of the points of commonality and difference between the two of you and your sense of theater and show biz?
WILDER: Well, when I was still in school and I saw "Your Show Of Shows," which was my favorite television show with Sid Caesar. Mel Brooks was one of the writers. At first, he started out as low man on the totem pole until he advanced to head writer.
But I had a feeling for what he had written. I wasn't sure if I was right. And then when I met him, there was a closeness because I loved that kind of humor, his kind of humor. It wasn't any part of my life, in my humor, but I just appreciated it. There was an affinity there somewhere. And in so many ways we're not at all alike, and in some ways we're very much alike.
When people, especially from France, would ask me to talk about or so they could write about New York Jewish humor, I'd say I don't know anything about New York Jewish humor. I know who Zero Mostel was and I know Mel Brooks, but that's about all I could tell you about New York Jewish humor. And I certainly didn't have New York Jewish humor. But I was in three Mel Brooks films so people thought I was a connoisseur of New York Jewish humor.
My humor is - was quite different. Mine was "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and "The World's Greatest Lover" and "Haunted Honeymoon," "The Woman In Red," things - "See No Evil, Hear No Evil." But his was much broader, and I think much funnier, too.
GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Gene Wilder in 2005. He died yesterday at the age of 83. After we take a short break, we'll hear him talk about working with Richard Pryor and his marriage to Gilda Radner. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're remembering Gene Wilder. He died yesterday of complications related to Alzheimer's. Wilder made his movie debut in "Bonnie And Clyde," starred in the Mel Brooks films "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles," played opposite Richard Pryor in "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy" and portrayed the candy-maker in "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory." Here's Wilder with Richard Pryor in a scene from "Stir Crazy." They play friends who were mistaken for bank robbers and arrested. Pryor is giving advice to Wilder on how to act, so that no one messes with them in jail.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STIR CRAZY")
WILDER: (As Skip Donahue) What are you doing?
RICHARD PRYOR: (As Harry Monroe) I'm getting bad. Better get bad, Jack, because if you ain't bad, you're going to get [expletive]. If you're bad, they don't mess with you. That's right. That's right. We bad. That's all right. We don't want no [expletive] neither. Now say it.
WILDER: (As Skip Donahue) Darn right.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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?
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 called - it had another name something - "The Super Chief." It was called "The Super Chief." And I have to decide - I want you to play the part, but you have to tell me that you want to, and I'll send someone now from Los Angeles with the script. Please read it as soon as you can and call me because by Tuesday, I have to tell an agent whether or not I want his client to play the part if you turn it down.
So he sent me the script. I read it, and I called him. I said I want to do this, and when I got back to Los Angeles, I told him how much I liked the script. I said you're going to be in a lot of trouble if you don't get the right person to play - well, the Richard Pryor part. 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 had improvised a lot in classes and at the Actors Studio, but I never did it in front of the camera. And 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...
WILDER: Oh, dear.
GROSS: ...And I want you to describe the scene and how he changed it.
WILDER: Well, we had 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? He said - I said, well, what should it be? He said it should be a black man who comes in, who sees what you're doing and 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've 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: Let's hear that scene from "Silver Streak" with Richard Pryor, and my guest Gene Wilder.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SILVER STREAK")
WILDER: (As George) I can't pass for black.
PRYOR: (As Grover) Who're you telling? 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.
WILDER: (As George) It'll never work, never.
PRYOR: (As Grover) What? Are you afraid it won't come off?
WILDER: (As George) That's a good joke. That's humorous.
PRYOR: (As Grover) You like that, huh?
WILDER: (As George) May I speak?
PRYOR: (As Grover) Yeah.
WILDER: (As George) This is crazy. It'll never work. Don't you understand?
PRYOR: (As Grover) Are you kidding? Look at that. Al Jolson made a million bucks looking 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 king [expletive]. 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. It needs work, George. It needs a lot of work. You know that.
GROSS: We're listening back to my 2005 interview with Gene Wilder. He died yesterday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Gene Wilder, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2005 after the publication of his memoir.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's go back to your very early days. You wrote about your mother. She had a first heart attack when you were 8. 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?
WILDER: You know, I can imagine what it did. This was a big man, a heavyset, 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 because you might kill her. What effect that had 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 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 and 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: When you were 18, you developed a compulsion to pray. And you say even though you weren't religious...
GROSS: ...You just compulsively prayed, sometimes for hours. And it got to a point where you didn't even see it as holy. I mean, you saw yourself as being driven by a demon that was compelling you to pray. Would you describe what that sensation was?
WILDER: Well, it hit, I think, on the 21st of March, oddly enough, in my freshman year at the University of Iowa. And I had this need to pray, and I didn't know why. And then it became so severe that I was praying for 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour. I would pray in front of the building I was going to go into for my classes, even though everyone was watching me. I didn't pray it out loud, but I was praying. My lips were moving.
And after a while, after it became an ordeal of praying for hours at a time, I said this is not anything holy. I'm not praying to God. I don't know why I'm praying. But when I went into the army, it was not wartime, after college, I chose the neuropsychiatric hospital to work in. I should have been a patient, but I...
WILDER: ...Chose to work there. And I saw these young men doing the craziest things - kneeling in front of the television set and praying. I said, yes, that young man is crazy, but it's not that much more crazy than what I do - or did. But I was still doing it but not to the extent I was doing it at school. And people who were afraid to step - one boy in particular, Roger, I remember couldn't step on a crack. I would say what do you think is going to happen to you if you do? He said, I don't know but please don't make me.
Anyway, when I got out of the Army, I went to see a therapist. And she said, what seems to be the trouble? And I said I want to give all my money away. And she said, how much do you have? And I said, I owe $300. She stared at me for several seconds, and she said, I see. Well, let's get to work. And maybe by the time you do have some money, you'll be wise enough to know what to do with it.
GROSS: (Laughter) When you...
WILDER: In the meantime, tell me about this and this and this and this.
GROSS: When you were going through that period of compulsive praying, what were your prayers? What were you chanting or thinking?
WILDER: I was - I couldn't think of what I had done that was so horrible that I had to have God's forgiveness. So I would try to cover all ground imaginable. Did I offend her, him, my mother, my father, my sister, my teacher? Was anything I was doing unholy? I - I honestly didn't know what it was until years later when, after seven and a half years of therapy, I realized when I was saying goodbye to my therapist, Margie (ph), she said, do you know why this all happened in the first place? And I said, I think so. And she said, what? Tell me.
And I said, what right did I have to be happy when my mother was suffering every day of her life? Because it seemed that every time I was really happy, the demon came, although I wasn't aware of that connection at the time. But my mother was so sick and suffering so much that I didn't think I had the right to be happy. And I found a very diabolical way of making myself suffer - not in the same way she was suffering but to prevent me from enjoying my own life.
GROSS: Gene Wilder is my guest. 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?
WILDER: I met her on the first night of filming - of night filming on a film called "Hanky Panky" that Sidney Poitier was directing. And it's funny I was in costume and makeup - in tuxedo and makeup because I had done a few shots before she arrived, and she told me later that she cried all the way 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 - 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 - she said, yes, it's true. I did feel that way. That's how we met on - doing the film.
And then she couldn't be alone, she wanted to attach yourself - 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 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.
GROSS: She had been taking hormone shots to help her get pregnant.
WILDER: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Did the doctors think that that was related to the cancer?
WILDER: Some people do. Some people don't. I don't have any definitive answer for you, but I had to give her an injection every evening at 6 o'clock. We did this two times.
GROSS: This is fertility injection.
WILDER: Yeah. She was in the in vitro fertilization program, and it nearly, nearly drove us apart, too. She wanted that baby, so badly, and it didn't work. Oddly enough, when we were doing "Haunted Honeymoon" in London, she did become pregnant for about 10 days, but then she lost it. But, anyway, my odyssey with Gilda was wonderful, funny, torturous, 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.
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. 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: We're listening back to my 2005 interview with Gene Wilder. He died yesterday. We'll hear more of the interview after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering Gene Wilder, who died yesterday at the age of 83. Let's get back to the interview we recorded in 2005 after the publication of his memoir. When we left off, we were talking about his late wife Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
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?
WILDER: After she died, you mean?
WILDER: Well, I - there wasn't a funeral per se. I buried her 3 miles from her 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 nonsectarian cemetery. And an old friend of hers from junior high school or high school was the rabbi in town, 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 stairways, 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 - it 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: After - not long after Gilda died, you got cancer. You got non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And you ended up getting that very extreme form of chemo that's required in order to do - was it stem cell transplant?
WILDER: It wasn't soon after. She died in '89, and I got non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 2000. And for your sake and all your listeners, I've just passed the five-year mark and I'm now what you call - well, it's called complete remission, but I'm cured. I'm fine.
WILDER: I'm one of the lucky ones.
GROSS: Good, good.
WILDER: But it wasn't - it was 2000 that I did it. And anyway, your question was about...
GROSS: Well, I was wondering if having watched her go through cancer and watching her get sicker and sicker, if that affected how you wanted to handle yourself when you were sick.
WILDER: It did. I thought either it would make things much worse than they would be or it would be much better for me. And it turns out it was much better. I wasn't afraid of it. I had seen that that rotten son of a bitch earlier, the cancer, I mean. I saw what it did to her.
And at that time, I was in love and still am with my wife Karen Wilder. And I thought I've had a very good life and a very good career. And if I shouldn't survive, I have no regrets. But I did survive. Also, part of the fear was taken away because when Gilda was going through chemo, there wasn't anything that they could do to stop the nausea except to give Ativan, which was just an anti-anxiety. When I got the chemo, they gave me something called Zofran. I was never sick - not one day, not even one hour and I had heavy chemo.
Now, I know - it doesn't work that way with everyone. And now, today, they even have - they've perfected it to a greater extent. But I was not sick at all. And I wasn't afraid of it. I mean, I was, I suppose, fatalistic about it. I was happy, and if I would live longer, then that would be a wonderful thing. But if I didn't, I had no complaints.
GROSS: Gene Wilder, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
WILDER: Thank you.
GROSS: Gene Wilder, recorded in 2005. He died yesterday of complications related to Alzheimer's disease. He was 83. He's survived by his wife Karen. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we get back to our end-of-summer series featuring some of our favorite recent interviews. And that show will be a tribute to Larry Wilmore, whose Comedy Central satirical news show was canceled this month, and we miss him. We'll hear excerpts of three interviews with him, one from soon after his show premiered last year, one after his hundreth episode and one from this year, after his controversial remarks at the White House Correspondents Dinner. I hope you'll join us.
Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, John Sheehan, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY")
WILDER: (As Willy Wonka) 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... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.