When the news began to spread on Aug. 29 that the comedic actor Gene Wilder passed away at the age of 83, fans of every age and demographic took to social media to share their memories and adoration for the man perhaps most remembered for playing the title role in the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” Movie theaters around the nation worked quickly to find a way to pay tribute to the late actor who had an immeasurable effect on the world of film.
Both the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) and the IMAX theater in the Indiana State Museum organized showings of three of Wilder’s most iconic films: “Young Frankenstein,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Blazing Saddles.” For just five dollars per ticket, fans were able to rewatch the classic films on the big screen.
Friday night, the IMA held a screening of the 1974 Mel Brooks hit “Young Frankenstein” for a sold out audience. Before the main attraction started, however, the audience was shown and sang along to “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka.”
Shown on 50 mm film, “Young Frankenstein” stirred up laughs from the audience throughout the screening.
It was the smiles and laughs that his iconic films brought to audience members that led Wilder to keep his Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret. According to the late actor’s nephew,
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn't vanity, but more so that the countless young children would smile or call out to him ‘there's Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
While 2016 has seen the loss of many talented performers, there have been few instances of tributes popping up throughout the nation on such short notice.
Like the IMA’s screening of “Young Frankenstein,” both of IMAX’s screenings of “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Blazing Saddles” sold out. As families gathered to watch “Willy Wonka” early Saturday morning, the emotions associated with the film was evident. Multiple generations of film fans connected “Wonka” with a magical sense of childhood. This speaks both to the lasting impact that Wilder had on pop culture, and also the power that film has on people.
“Our generation’s masterpieces are not necessarily paintings or works of literature: they are film. They are visual. When you look at it like that, at somebody that paints these beautiful pictures, to get somebody up on that silver screen, it sticks with you. Especially at a younger age, you have those films that you watch over and over again. ‘Willy Wonka’ was one of those films for a lot of people,” Craig Mince, board director for the Indianapolis International Film Festival said.
While Wilder played several iconic roles throughout his career, at the time of his death, he had not made a movie for over 20 years. For many entertainers, 20 years out of the spotlight comes with a loss of relevancy and popularity.
The same cannot be said for Gene Wilder.
“Children still watch ‘Willy Wonka,’ and that’s probably the biggest factor as to why he’s still known,” Dr. Dennis Bingham, the director of IUPUI’s film studies program said. “This happens sometimes in film history where if someone has made his or her mark, it almost doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in 20 or 30 years.”
Beyond his comedic ability, Wilder is also remembered as an innovator, making five groundbreaking movies with comedian Richard Pryor that broke barriers in race relations in Hollywood.
“When those two got together, they had the perfect comedic chemistry,” Mince said. “It was in a time when seeing something like that on a screen was groundbreaking. When they shared a screen, no one really cared about race or religion or whatever, it was just a performance that was absolutely stunning and amazing.”
For many, Gene Wilder played a huge role in their childhoods. Whether one remembers him for captivating their imagination as a young child or for entertaining them as any one of his legendary characters, one thing is for certain: Gene Wilder’s ability to bring laughs to the masses was truly his gateway to immortality.