Not everyone has a voice they can call their own. Most voices come from somewhere; they’re derivative. Possibly you picked up the way your mother’s voice reaches into that higher register when she’s excited, or you liked the way an uncle called his friends “lads,” so you instituted that word into your speech.
My father calls himself “The Waco Kid.” For the longest time, I assumed his reasoning followed simple logic: He was born there. As a military brat, my dad’s family moved around a bunch, living a time in such extremes as Arizona and Germany, so I thought his “Waco Kid” nickname helped situate what must have been a constantly shifting sense of place. Perhaps this is part of the truth, but I was a kid then and kids dream their own backstories to unexplained narratives.
I’m sure you see where this is going. One evening Dad was out on the back porch and Blazing Saddles played on Turner Classic Movies. Though it was late, we ended up watching the whole movie together. When Gene Wilder appeared onscreen, I’d only ever known him as Willy Wonka, but that’s when I learned where part of my dad’s voice came from: “The Waco Kid.”
Gene Wilder could never be considered derivative, at least not in his film roles. His was a voice all his own. You’ve likely heard the tragic news that Gene Wilder has passed away at the age of 83 Monday, losing a three-year long battle with Alzheimer’s disease. This afternoon, his nephew released a statement that explained why Wilder chose to hide his sickness that made its way online. In short, he didn’t want kids who knew him only as “Willy Wonka” to approach him and have that moment be ruined by parents having to later explain his illness. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Jordan Walker-Pearlman wrote.
That kind of sentiment breaks your heart. Those pieces pulped just further reading that Wilder’s son had signed the note as “Gene’s Kid.”
Gene Wilder took his last breath, holding his family's hands, listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing "Over the Rainbow" pic.twitter.com/9WuCxYl62p
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) August 29, 2016
When we eulogize any person, we’re verbalizing regrets over lost time, a life no more. With those special artists, our mourning concerns lost creations. So-and-so will never write another novel, no more paintings from that genius. Most will lament the disappearance of Gene Wilder from the screen. Though he retreated long ago—his last film was 1991’s Another You, co-starring with longtime collaborator and friend Richard Pryor; his final onscreen TV performance was in 2003 playing Mr. Stein in Will & Grace—a hope remained some role would entice him out of retirement.
“I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in a 2008 TCM appearance. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”
What I’ll miss most is his voice. I simply can’t bear the idea Gene Wilder’s voice won’t be heard anymore. A warmth hugged his words, how that first syllable quickly crescendoed into existence and the last receded the same way. It played various instruments: He could thunder “YOU GET NOTHING” like an incensed trombone choir, and convince you of that bassoon quack “Fronkensteen.” The guy could literally sing.
His characters always seemed in possession of some winking secret they couldn’t wait to spill. But you had to earn it, you had to ask, you had to go along for his ride. There’s a great story about his portrayal of Willy Wonka. When Wonka, his legend enormous by then, makes his grand entrance, he walks with a cane and a limp. The crowd quiets, all wanting to gain a better look of the man. Had he become a cripple in his old age? Then his cane sticks in the cobblestone and Wonka starts to fall over, but gracefully turns the move into a somersault, popping up smiling, to a round of applause.
It was Wilder’s idea and his one requirement in accepting the film. When pressed to explain why he said, “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
He was such a physical savant in that way. So few comedies deal in that physical realm nowadays, but that discussion is for another time.
Instead, let’s now remember that winking face and his orchestral voice, and how Gene Wilder invented worlds unto himself. Reflecting on his career, you want to know where he came from. Whatever wonderful universe that is, that’s where he’ll hopefully return. But those questions of origin will fade once you see him onscreen again, because Wilder convinced you to join him on whatever adventure his characters were embarking. You always followed. Because more than anything, you wanted to be wherever he was going. It was a world of pure imagination.