I’m remembering two giants we’ve lost in the last two weeks: Gene Wilder and Arthur Hiller. Life, sad to say, isn’t fair. True, these gentlemen lived long and prospered. Wilder was 83 when he passed away, and Hiller was a ripe old 92. They were admired by the public and by their peers in that most fickle of industries, show biz. And yet their later years were clearly tough for them both, as well as for those who loved them.
I was first aware of Gene Wilder in 1967, in one of the most brilliant little sequences in an altogether brilliant movie, Bonnie and Clyde. He and his lady friend are canoodling on a small-town verandah when the Barrows gang audaciously steals his car, parked at the curb. In a series of wacky reversals, he and Velma pursue the outlaws, only to find themselves ordered at gunpoint into the stolen vehicle. For a while they get along famously with their abductors, sharing snacks and telling jokes. Then he happens to let slip his occupation—undertaker—and the mood dramatically shifts.
From that auspicious beginning, Gene Wilder went on to do unforgettable work for Mel Brooks, as Leo Bloom in The Producers, the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, and (best of all) the grandson of the famous Victor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein. (Who can forget his “Puttin’ on the Ritz” song and dance routine with the monster? I’m told this was Wilder’s idea, vetoed by Brooks until he saw how well it played.) He also, as a mysterious candy maker named Willy Wonka, played a major role in the childhoods of many youngsters I know. In addition, he was part of an unlikely duo with Richard Pryor in both Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, zany films that made the two men Hollywood’s first successful interracial comedy team.
Along with all the fun, Wilder faced heartbreak, notably in his short-lived marriage to Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer after less than five years of wedlock. He worked hard to raise money for cancer awareness, and slowly segued from acting into writing. But, tragically, it was complications from Alzheimer’s disease that claimed him on August 29, 2016.
Arthur Hiller was a director, not an actor, and so his face was not as familiar as Wilder’s, with its flyaway blonde curls and innocent blue-eyed gaze. Hiller actually directed Wilder and Pryor in Silver Streak, and was also known for a wide array of hit comedies and dramas, including The Hospital, Plaza Suite, and The Man in the Glass Booth. His favorite of his own films came early in his career, 1964’s wryly anti-war The Americanization of Emily, starring Julie Andrews and James Garner and based on a Paddy Chayefsky screenplay. But of course he remains best-known for the most schmaltzy film of its era., Love Story may be ripe for parody but it also earned Hiller an Oscar nomination as Best Director of 1970. Dedicated to his industry, he served as president of the Directors Guild and of the Motion Picture Academy, while also being active on the National Film Preservation Board.
I met Arthur Hiller in his later years, and was saddened to learn that macular degeneration was preventing him from making—or even watching—movies. In the last year, I caught a glimpse of him at the dentist’s office: he was essentially blind. A poignant outcome for a gentle soul dedicated to the motion picture medium. He passed away less than two months after his wife of 68 years. So I guess he knew what a Love Story was all about.