Gene Wilder passed away last week. Like many people, this got me thinking about the impact his performances have had on me.
I’m not type to wax nostalgic over the loss of celebrities but Wilder was a unique cat. I vividly remember watching Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory as a child; I was as memorized as I was terrified. This character, this man, was weird and I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.
A seemingly decrepit man hobbles up to the gate of his factory only to roll into a somersault and leap to his feet. He speaks in an peculiar cadence and with words from outside of my vernacular. He casually bobs between being an inviting host and a menacing eccentric. I remember being confused and loving it.
I lacked the self-awareness, at the time, to recognize that he was revealing my appetite for curiosity. Wilder’s performance marks one of the earliest moments in which I remember being thrilled to puzzle through bewilderment. What am I watching? What is happening here? Is this normal? Is he normal? Am I normal?
As an adult, I recognize similar thrills: in aberrant rhythms and melodies, in the clever simplicities of science and engineering, and in the twists and turns of great fiction.
The work of exceptional artists can help us to understand ourselves better and I thank Gene Wilder for doing exactly that.