On the screen, Gene Wilder is known for his comic teamings with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor. Away from the public glare, the man with the melancholy gaze and trademark frizzy hair paints watercolors and lives in a Colonial-era house in Connecticut with his fourth wife, Karen.
How this came to be is the result of the twists, turns and ironies of his life, as detailed in his new memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. Unfolding chronologically, in a series of vignettes, it co-stars family members, famous names, women he has loved, including his late wife Gilda Radner, and his therapist. "Writing the book was, in itself, a kind of therapy. Several years ago, a brief trip to California became a months-long visit [when his mother-in-law took ill]. I thought I'd go crazy if I didn't have something artistic to do. . . . I started writing, and whatever had built up, after, oh, Gilda, then finding my wife, Karen, and then memories from childhood . . . it just started pouring out," Wilder recalls.
No, he didn't have a ghostwriter. Speaking by phone from his home in Connecticut, he reminds us, in his soft-spoken, carefully modulated voice, that he has written "more than a half-dozen movies." No fan of tell-alls, the introspective Wilder takes his readers through his life's journey via his work, exploring the notion of fate, and how the choices we make reverberate. Consider this scenario: after auditioning six times for Jerome Robbins, Wilder was cast in the 1962 theatrical production of the Bertolt Brecht play, Mother Courage. Though he went on to realize he'd been terribly miscast, he became friendly with co-star Anne Bancroft, whose boyfriend was Mel Brooks, who told Wilder about a script he was writing which would include a role for him. Three years later, when Wilder was on Broadway, Brooks reappeared in his life to report that the deal for the film, The Producers, was at last cinched.
"Oh, my God. If it hadn't been for Mel!" says Wilder, whose performance of nebbish producer Leo Bloom led to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He went on to star in Brooks' nutzoid Western, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein. He wouldn't have met Radner had director Sidney Poitier not suggested her as the leading lady in Stir Crazy. Wilder soon discovered that the "Saturday Night Live" star was as troubled as she was talented. "I said, at one point, we can't live together. And that's a fact," he admits. Indeed, he adds and writes, were it not for an episode involving Radner's Yorkshire Terrier, Sparkle, they might not have married at all.
Readers may find it surprising that Wilder doesn't romanticize his marriage to Radner. "Oh, you noticed, did you?" he deadpans. He depicts her as demanding, anxious to be loved, a fount of neuroses. But he also stuck by her during her bout with ovarian cancer. "I always thought she'd pull through," he recalls. After Radner's death in 1989, Wilder became the patient, successfully battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
He was halfway through writing his book when he realized "I was really writing a love story." But thinking back, he could never have anticipated this particular romance. It began with the movie, See No Evil, Hear No Evil. To prepare for his role, Wilder met with speech pathologist Karen Webb. Following Radner's death, the two reconnected and married. "But if I'd met Karen 20 years [earlier], it would never have worked. I wasn't ready for her and she wasn't ready for me."
In his book's preface, Wilder refers to the famed fountain outside the Plaza Hotel in New York City. To get past it, do you walk to the left or to the right? "I believe that whichever choice you make could change your life," he writes. In Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Wilder offers an unconventional but honest look back at where his own fateful choices have led.
Biographer Pat H. Broeske has covered Hollywood for several newspapers and magazines.