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Alec Baldwin Interviews Gene Wilder for Role Model on Turner Classic Movies

Young Frankenstein

It seems Hollywood always has a small handful of actors who don’t get the respect (or work) they deserve–maybe because they’re just…well, too good perhaps. One of those actors is inarguably Gene Wilder who hasn’t acted too much in recent years, but nonetheless is still around, doing well and dabbling in other creative pursuits. Fans of this comedy actor who obviously grew up with his films “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory”, “Young Frankenstein”, “Blazing Saddles” or “Stir Crazy” (with Richard Pryor) will want to catch this full commercial-free hour interview of Wilder with ubiquitous Alec Baldwin. According to TCM’s website, we’ll be getting some interesting observations from Wilder about his past films via an interviewer (Baldwin) who actually cares.

Let’s hope TCM turns this (“Role Model”) into a series so we’ll get questions posed to actors in interviews the fans would actually ask.

Fortunately, Baldwin is a huge fan of Wilder, personally chose him when given the opportunity to interview anybody he wanted and says Wilder had a big influence on his own acting approach. You can usually see some of that straight-faced comic influence in Baldwin’s wacky role on “30 Rock” or when he hosts “Saturday Night Live.” But that Wilder comedic style is really one of my own favorite approaches to comedy–and it doesn’t always get appreciated…even in Wilder’s movies that didn’t do so well at the box office. What’s interesting is that Wilder (born Jerry Silberman) started out as a very serious acting student…along with having an athletic streak that could have made him the next Gene Kelly if he wanted to be.

As you might have guessed, he started acting already in his teens doing community theatre in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. A lot of more casual fans will probably be surprised to learn that Wilder ended up studying in England after graduation from college where he not only studied the more British way of acting, but also studied fencing there. He became so skilled at fencing that he ended up not only winning most matches he’d play but also teaching it to make some extra money on the side when acting gigs were sparse. If you watch his performances in films such as “Young Frankenstein”, you can see that he has an athletic flair there that could have been utilized in musicals had they not have been out of style by the time his acting career took off.

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Ironically, his first major hit film would be about a deliberately flop musical–with no singing or dancing from Wilder (or co-star Zero Mostel). That was Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”, obviously, where Wilder created that classic comedic persona for himself after years of doing serious productions of Shakespeare and Arthur Miller on both the stage and TV. Hopefully the latter (a TV production of “Death of a Salesman” for CBS in 1966) will see a DVD release someday so fans of Wilder (like me, who weren’t born yet) can see him in rare dramatic mode before his comedic years in movies.


This TCM interview will reportedly have Wilder telling about his friendship with Mel Brooks and how they met when Brooks’ then-girlfriend (and future wife) Anne Bancroft had the two meet when Bancroft and Wilder were doing a play together in NYC. Brooks apparently could tell Wilder was perfect for the Leo Bloom role from that first meeting, and he later got what he wanted more than four years later for “The Producers.” It’s too bad Brooks didn’t have the power to keep the original working title: “Springtime for Hitler.” Studio execs were probably having heart attacks just hearing about the original title.

After “The Producers” became a cult favorite, it seems Wilder was influenced somewhat by Brooks and his wild and perceptive sense of parody. While Wilder slogged through some flops in the early 70’s (yes, “Willy Wonka” didn’t do all that well initially), he fine-tuned a script for “Young Frankenstein” that Brooks just wasn’t sold on until the last minute before being asked to direct the project. Let’s hope Wilder received a cut of the profits for the recently successful Broadway production, though I suspect he didn’t just because Brooks was producer of the movie and musical. I can somehow guess which of the classic scenes Gene Wilder concocted in the original movie whenever I happen to catch a TV viewing of it when aired various places around Halloween.

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Despite his film career being a bit varied in quality by the late 70’s, Wilder reveals to Baldwin that he prefers doing film to theater. That seems to give the notion that he wouldn’t mind doing more films if any offers came up. It seems just because he had a string of unfortunate flops (mostly those buddy comedies with health-plagued Richard Pryor) during the 1980’s and 90’s–Hollywood wrongfully turned its back on him. Even his own self-directed and written comedies in the 70’s and 80’s (“The World’s Greatest Lover” and “The Lady in Red” arguably two of his best) are at least better than the crapola comedies that get heavy marketing campaigns through the mainstream studios today.

Maybe after also not being successful in his own TV series (remember “Something Wilder” on NBC?)–he figured it was better to merge his talents into something that didn’t require as much studio and network interference that undoubtedly was the monkey wrench in his later projects. That’s when he turned to writing novels as well as his own autobiography…while still doing an occasional noteworthy TV gig. His autobiography was a bestseller and received a lot of accolades in 2005. But when he released the hilariously-titled “My French Whore”–it took him to a new comedic height in fiction writing. Because of its success last year, he just released a new novel called “The Woman Who Wouldn’t.” Sure, his slightly raunchy humor is intact, yet still very funny.

Too bad he can’t star in the movie adaptations of these books. Maybe Hollywood will reconsider after seeing this revealing interview.

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No interview with Gene Wilder can be complete, of course, without talking about his marriage to Gilda Radner and dealing with her cancer during the late 1980’s. His experience with that truly changed his sense of purpose in life and has since done myriad work in cancer causes of various sorts as well as writing some books about Radner’s cancer fight.

Here’s basically a brilliant comedian who wisely found a more satisfying life in his later years–despite frustrations with TV and movies during a time when he was probably taken for granted by audiences. Now that he’s semi-retired from acting, he takes the time to delve into charitable causes, do some painting and writing with his more recent wife. Having that more serene life gives fans a chance to hear him reflect on a much fuller life than people probably realize or remember.

You can catch “Role Model: Gene Wilder” on April 15 at 5:00 p.m. Pacific (8 Eastern)–and then the rerun that night at 10:00 p.m. Pacific (1 a.m. Eastern).

With this special, Wilder will probably get a flood of offers to be in movies again–though let’s all pray it isn’t sequel-obsessed Hollywood pitching him a sequel to “Young Frankenstein” produced by Adam Sandler…