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Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks: A Meeting of Two Crazy Minds

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The next on air presentation of DVD_TV is Young Frankenstein, Sunday, June 10 @ 8P | 7C, and stay tuned for the enhanced version at 10:15P | 9:15C.

In 1963, Gene Wilder was scraping by as an actor in the New York theater. “I was in a play called Mother Courage by Bertolt Brecht, starring Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend was Mel Brooks, and Mel came by to pick her up each evening after the show,” Wilder recalled. “I was having trouble with one little section of the play, and he gave me tips on how to act. He said, ‘That’s a song and dance. He’s proselytizing about communism. Just skip over it, sing and dance over it, and get on to the good stuff.’ And he was right.”

Mel Brooks often refers to Gene Wilder as “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us.” He saw that aspect of Wilder’s character right away, Wilder said. “When I first met Mel Brooks, he told me that, in his eyes, I was like a sheep surrounded by wolves.”

In the backstage environment, the two comedians had a chance to get to know each other, Wilder recalled. “One day Mel said, ‘Would you like to come to Fire Island with Annie and me? I’ll read you the first 30 pages of a movie I’m writing.’ And I went to Fire Island, we went fishing in the surf, came back, had dinner, and then Annie and I sat down and he read 30 pages of ‘Springtime for Hitler.’ That’s what it was called then. And then he said, ‘Would you like to play that part in the movie?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ He said, ‘All right, all right. So don’t take anything in the fall without checking with me.’”

But nothing happened that fall, and Wilder’s first film appearance
ended up being the neurotic undertaker ‘Eugene Grizzard’ in Bonnie and
Clyde (1967).  “Three years went by, never heard from Mel,” Wilder
recalled, “and I’m doing a play called Love on Broadway, taking off my
makeup. Knock-knock on the door. I open the door. There’s Mel with a
tall stranger. He said, ‘You don’t think I forgot you, do you? This is
Sidney Glazier, our producer. We’re going to do “Springtime for
Hitler,” but I can’t just cast you. You’ve got to beat Zero first,
tomorrow at 10:00.’”

The next morning, Wilder headed to the audition. “My heart was
pounding. I got to Sidney Glazier’s office door. The door opens,
there’s Mel. He says, ‘Come on in. Z?’ He calls Zero Z. ‘This is Gene.
Gene, this is Z.’ And I put out my hand tentatively. And Zero grabbed
my hand, pulls me to him and kissed me on the lips. And all my
nervousness went away. We did the reading and I got the part, and
everything was fine.”

“I don’t know what to call it – luck, good fortune, irony,” Wilder
mused. “When you consider that if Jerome Robbins hadn’t miscast me in
Mother Courage, starring Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend was Mel Brooks,
how would my life be different now? It wouldn’t be the same, that’s for
sure. I wouldn’t have done The Producers or Blazing Saddles or Young
Frankenstein. I never used to believe in fate. I used to think you make
your own life and then you call it fate. That’s why I call it irony.”

“I love acting, especially if it’s a fantasy of some kind, not
naturalism,” said Wilder. “It’s not that I want to be someone different
from me, but I suppose it partly is that. I love creating a character
in a fantastical situation, like ‘Dr. Frankenstein,’ like ‘Leo Bloom,’
a little caterpillar who blossoms into a butterfly. I love that.”
Wilder still appreciates the break Brooks gave him in The Producers. He
recently mused that if he’d never met Mel Brooks, "I might be a patient
in some neuro-psychiatric hospital now, looking through bars as I made
wallets.”

Sources:
“Interview with Gene Wilder,” Larry King Live, CNN, 5/2/02
Robert Chalmers, “An Angel in America,” The Independent, 6/19/05
Brian Braiker, “Gene Wilder’s Search For Love and Art,” Newsweek, 5/18/05

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