In Memoriam: Gene Wilder (1933-2016)—Long Live Dr. Froderick Fronkensteen
Gene Wilder passed away 29 August, 2016 after suffering many years from Alzheimer’s. An actor, writer, producer and director on stage and, most famously, on film and television, horror and comedy fans alike fondly remember him for his portrayal of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in the Mel Brooks classic, Young Frankenstein. Though horror and comedy have been together for many years, with the mix often resulting in lackluster results, it was Brooks’ film that brought the horror/comedy genre to the mainstream with a movie that delivered the creeps directly to your funny bone in ways never seen before. Written by Wilder, Young Frankenstein is one of those rare films so steeped in both genres that it couldn’t help but be noticed by mainstream audiences.
Wilder had worked with screenwriting before, but never at the level of seriousness and attention as he put into the script for Young Frankenstein. Working closely with Brooks, along with character actor Peter Boyle and comedian Marty Feldman, Wilder put together his tale of the reluctant grandson, shamed by his family’s history, desperately pushing himself away from the folk tales, yet eventually finding that it was all true—his grandfather really did reanimate lifeless tissue, and there was a way that he could do it as well. What ensues is a swift decent into comedic madness, with Feldman’s Igor (pronounced Eye-gor), Teri Garr’s alluring Inga, Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blücher, and Madeline Kahn as Elizabeth. Add Peter Boyle as the monster and Kenneth Mars rounding out the cast as Inspector Kemp, complete with an unreliable prosthetic arm, and you have comedy gold. Cameos by Gene Hackman and Brooks himself providing sound effects add small comedic touches while allowing the main cast to shine in their own special way. Many of the scenes and gags in the film were ad-libbed, and remained in the film to become classics of their own. Young Frankenstein is also one of the few Frankenstein themed films that used some of the laboratory equipment seen in the original Universal 1931 production of Frankenstein.
Of course, Wilder was the main attraction. His reserved, gentle nature and explosive, maniacal intensity was the perfect fit for the movie, allowing him to channel Colin Clive’s take on the character while bringing something distinctly ‘Gene Wilder’ to the film. Here we have the reluctant doctor, completely embarrassed by his ancestor’s claim to fame, thrust into a quest to make the ridiculous a reality. With expert timing and grace, Wilder gave us a Dr. Frankenstein that not only made us laugh, but also a performance that stands among the best that have ever played any version of the character, past and present. All Gene ever wanted in this world was to make others smile, and with his Dr. Frankenstein, as with all of his other characters, he has given us that greatest gift.
Rest in peace, Mr. Wilder. You will be missed.