Idol chatter: Alec Baldwin (right) interviews one of his favorite stars in
Role Model: Gene Wilder, part of Tuesday’s all-night salute to Wilder on Turner Classic Movies.
In the new 60-minute salute Role Model: Gene Wilder, the appreciative audience has been cut down to one conspicuous admirer, Alec Baldwin, and director Robert Trachtenberg (Cary Grant: A Class Apart) has filmed this Osborne-less Q&A at the lush Waveny House in New Canaan, Conn.
These casual touches seem deliberately
designed to bring the best out of Wilder, 74, who has never been the
chattiest of performers. And this quasi-retrospective works just fine,
if only because Baldwin is genuine in his genuflection of all things
Gene. Wilder appears more relaxed in his confidences to a fellow actor
than he might have allowed under a traditional Tinseltown grilling, and
Baldwin, to his credit, doesn’t try to compete with his own stories.
He’s simply bowled over by Wilder’s work, particularly the ways his
performances have somehow managed to combine “humanity and insanity.”
Wilder’s memories flow with a gentle easiness, starting with his “miscasting” in a 1963 Broadway production of Jerome Robbins’ Mother Courage and Her Children,
in which he played opposite Anne Bancroft, who just happened to have a
boyfriend named Mel Brooks. Wilder remarked to Brooks that he looked
rather handsome in a pea jacket, an unwitting straight-man cue for
Brooks to respond, “They were going to call them urine jackets but they
didn’t sell.” Brooks also thought Wilder would be perfect casting for a
movie he was writing called Springtime for Hitler (later to be renamed The Producers) and told him to set aside some time for the eventual filming; four years later, after Wilder’s Broadway runs in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (opposite Kirk Douglas) and Murray Schisgal’s Luv, Brooks finally came calling: “You don’t think I forgot, did you?”
Instead of the usual
and-then-you-made-this-picture template, the interview jumps around
Wilder’s cinematic chronology, with recollections of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
(“This is a morality movie,” Wilder says about his quirky portrayal,
“and I should scare the shit out of these kids!”) followed by clips
from the 1966 CBS-TV adaptation of Death of a Salesman, with
Wilder (as obnoxious neighbor kid Bernard) sparring with Lee J. Cobb,
George Segal and James Farentino. Along the way the two men
thematically segue from The Producers to the 1974 Brooks-Wilder collaboration Young Frankenstein,
then onto Wilder’s own directorial career (“I’m a good director,” he
admits, “but I’m not a very good director.”), but then they have to
double back to comment on Blazing Saddles (1974). Baldwin, incidentally, tosses in a reference to a movie he directed but does not name; it’s the little-seen 2004 The Devil and Daniel Webster (now retitled Shortcut to Happiness), co-starring Anthony Hopkins and Jennifer Love Hewitt.
Baldwin squeezes in time for Wilder’s remarks on the forgotten 1970 Irish comedy Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (“I read the script and I cried.”) yet he mysteriously fails to bring up director Wilder’s popular 1984 farce The Woman in Red or his work on director Robert Aldrich’s offbeat western The Frisco Kid
with Harrison Ford, a modest hit back in 1979 yet now a strangely
obscure flick. Still, some tasty nuggets of information are revealed in
this TV special. Wilder’s casting as the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles,
for instance, was a result of original star Dan Dailey dropping out and
replacement Gig Young getting ousted after suffering from alcoholism
withdrawal. And for his role as a man who falls in love with a sheep in
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), director Woody Allen told Wilder to think of it as “a remake of Sister Carrie.”
The comedies Blazing Saddles (with Cleavon Little) and The Producers (below with Kenneth Mars and Zero Mostel) will also be telecast on Turner Classic Movies.
Wilder is also sweetly sentimental
regarding his late wife Gilda Radner and candid about his frequent
co-star Richard Pryor’s own battle with drugs, with one neat anecdote
in which Pryor improved the edgy hilarity of Wilder’s blackface scene
in 1976’s Silver Streak. Although Baldwin doesn’t get his idol to cry like Barbara Walters would have done, Role Model: Gene Wilder plays like a nice tribute to a very nice man.
Turner Classics will air Role Model: Gene Wilder on Tuesday, April 15, 8 p.m. and 1 a.m., as part of an all-Wilder festival. The Producers,
with Wilder in his Academy Award-nominated role opposite the
larger-than-life Zero Mostel, will be telecast at 9:15 p.m. Brooks’
laugh riot Blazing Saddles comes on at 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. And sandwiched between those showings will be Start the Revolution Without Me
at 2:15 a.m., an underrated slapstick showcase with Wilder and Donald
Sutherland as two sets of identical twins who cause comic commotion
during the French Revolution.