Dear Mr. Wilder,
It is with both great reverence and sadness that I find myself writing you. Although you will never read this I believe it important to explain the depth your loss creates. We never met, much like many others who felt a heaviness in learning you’d left, yet I understood you better than some who I’ve known my entire life. You were a meek accountant coerced into laundering money for a purposely doomed play. You were a crazed scientist hell-bent on not following in your grandfather’s footsteps but did so with monstrous results. You were a self pitying drunk with the fastest hands in the world who found his worth in the friendship of an unlikely sheriff. You were a neurotic chocolatier seeking innocence amongst the hoards of vermicious knids, and in doing so gave me permission to believe in a world of pure imagination.
I first met you when I was about 10 (albeit far too young an age given the film) as that drunken gunman. You showed up on screen about 1/3 of the way through, upside down and hungover, and I knew immediately you were the real star even if you weren’t the one wearing it. The charm and dry wit you displayed was a beautiful contrast to the slapstick and overtly racial humor surrounding it at every corner. It was the first time I appreciated someone’s acting and wanting to find more of their work. I found out years later it was only by chance that you were even in the movie. The original actor really was a drunk and was forced to quit due to medical concerns. That misfortune was in my undeniable favor. The Waco Kid became my new hero (see ya, He-Man!), and I’ll be damned if I still don’t try to snatch a king as fast as I can whenever I see a chessboard.
It wasn’t too long after this that I found you again, this time on television, promising a lifetime’s supply of chocolate! At that age I wasn’t too keen on some of the early musical numbers (plus, again, it seemed like forever until you came on screen), and I felt more in common with Grandpa Joe than I did Charlie (he didn’t have a lot of friends, and Grandpa liked to stay in bed all day!). However, the nuances of the setting and era grew on me with each viewing and fit wonderfully into the story. After finally meeting all of the key characters as they found their golden tickets it was time for your entrance. The story of that famous somersault is even more elegant than its execution as it was your idea and one that was non-debatable for you to play the role. It goes:
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
Asked why, Wilder explained: “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Then you walked me into a place grander than I’d anticipated. The scale of it fascinated me as it seemed to have no end given its vast amount of rooms, inventions, and confection creations I’d never seen before. I probably licked my wall a few times wondering what a snozzberry tasted like (knowing what they are now I realize Roald Dahl was a sick person). Yet with all the amazing designs and ridiculous things happening I was glued to you more than anything else. You were the cornerstone of that factory, and when you blasted through the glass roof of it I felt anything was possible.
I found out a few years later that the guy who made Blazing Saddles also made another favorite of mine, Robin Hood: Men in Tights. So, in looking up his other films, I discovered a VHS at a video store with your picture on the front. Your hair, seemingly shocked alive, recalled Einstein, and you were screaming at the top of your lungs. How had I missed such a stark image for so long? I didn’t bother reading the description on the back and couldn’t wait to watch it immediately when I got home. I quickly discovered this version of you was not one I was familiar with. You were by far the most raucous and exquisitely maniacal I’d ever seen you. It was perfect. The hill of dementia you slowly and brilliantly ascended until you finally gave your creation life was accentuated by your comedic wisdom as you also played the straight man in many scenes (i.e. “Puttin’ on the Ritz” – also your idea). The ease in the not-so-subtlety of your range astounded me. From beginning to end your performance captured me and remains the most complete and hilarious I’ve ever seen.
I could regale you with my account of the many other works of your career I’ve appreciated, but they far outshine the words I could find. You tapped into the heart of your characters and breathed life into them more than any other actor I’ve seen. The fluidity with which you wore their skin was sublime in ways that rarely happen anymore. Ultimately, those whom you have portrayed are not real, but the joy they have created is. I’m sure as your life is assessed there are plenty who will remember you for one great line or scene that sums up who you were to them. Maybe they only know you as Willy Wonka, or Dr. Frankenstein, or The Waco Kid, or Leo Bloom, or even just ‘that guy in those movies with Richard Pryor’. But to me you were an understanding that I can always reach inside and create anything if I truly wish. I don’t consider myself a fanciful person, but watching your many incarnations pulled at a desire to look around and view paradise which was anywhere I dreamed it to be. The simpleness of the words in that song gave me every inclination they were true because your artistry in delivering them showed me you believed. I felt the message in that music because it seemed you performed it just for me. Isn’t that what art should do? And every time I revisit it I continue to feel that way. It makes everything beautiful and possible, and you made me believe in it. You made me believe in the pureness of imagination. I still believe it. I always will. And because of you there is no life I know that compares to it. Thank you so very much.
Goodbye to one of life’s good deeds in a weary world.