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Celebrity Slam (08/31/2016)

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Pure imagination

'A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.' Gene Wilder (as Willy Wonka)

A lot of fun is had at the expense of famous folks in this space. There's an undeniable delight in the gentle (and not-so-gentle) mockery of celebrities when they say and do ridiculous and/or dumb things.

However, there are occasions when a very different tactic is adopted. These occasions are when time is taken not to scorn or deride, but to celebrate these celebrities who have had some sort of real impact on us with the work that they have done.

And so now, it's time to talk about Gene Wilder, who passed away this week at the age of 83 due to complications from Alzheimer's disease.

It's difficult to articulate just how beloved Mr. Wilder's body of work was to many people. Truthfully, anyone who loves comedy likely bears a deep and abiding affection for his work. Heck, all you have to do is look at the American Film Institute's list of the 100 best comedies of all time the white-hot comedic energy of Wilder's collaborative efforts with Mel Brooks are well represented.

How well? Try the sixth ('Blazing Saddles'), 11th ('The Producers') and 13th ('Young Frankenstein') best of all time. While one could quibble about the specific spots in terms of ranking I, for instance, would posit that all three could conceivably be even higher on the list there's no disputing that this is a titanic trio.

It was in his work with Brooks that Wilder's incredibly varied skill set really took flight. This was a man who handled subtlety and scenery-chewing with equal aplomb. Comedic lead or straight man, it didn't matter this was a guy who excelled at all aspects of the craft. An inner light permeated every one of his performances, marrying an inherent likeability with an utter on-screen fearlessness that made him absolutely magnetic to behold.

But it wasn't just the work with Brooks that engendered our affections.

I'm not going to hazard a guess as to just how many times I've seen Wilder's turn as the titular candymaker in 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.' It could be 15, 20, 25perhaps more. It was a soulful, nuanced performance that also happened to sport some sharp edges; the darkness that Wilder was able to evoke while still maintaining that baseline likeability was simply remarkable.

In short, I love this movie and his work in it - with all of my heart.

Any body of work that features those four movies is one worthy of celebration, but I'm not done yet. While his passing has certainly reminded us of Wilder's extended cinematic partnership with Richard Pryor, the reality is that those movies had fallen off the radar of many people. Yet his exceptional talents were on display there as well.

'Silver Streak,' 'Stir Crazy,' 'See No Evil, Hear No Evil,' 'Another You' the Wilder/Pryor partnership played out over the course of 15 years. The explosive Pryor and the reserved Wilder were a match made in cinematic heaven, creating an ongoing filmic friendship that warrants remembrance; each man was a stalwart part of the other's later career. In fact, 1991's 'Another You' was Wilder's final cinematic release; he did a smattering of television work in subsequent years a few TV movies, a few guest appearances, a short-lived sitcom but his movie career was essentially finished a quarter-century ago.

(It should be noted that Wilder's final IMDB credit is a voice role in a 'Yo Gabba Gabba!' TV movie in 2015 a full 12 years after the next most recent role. I find this fact both comforting and utterly appropriate for reasons I can't quite explain.)

Gene Wilder's brilliance was quiet, even when his performances were loud. The truth that he brought to the screen was a rare and exquisite gem, something that we could never properly appreciate even as we adored him. He lived the life that he chose to live something to which we all should aspire.

Rest in peace, sir. Thank you for the joy your work has given and for all of the joy that it will further give.

'We are the music-makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.' Arthur O'Shaughnessy

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