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CNN NEWSNIGHT AARON BROWN

Interview with Actor Gene Wilder

Aired March 18, 2005 - 22:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, HOST: Good evening everyone. Thank you so much for joining us tonight.
You have heard much of Ashley Smith's story but not Almeta Kilgo's. A week ago today, Ms. Kilgo who works for the "Atlanta Journal Constitution," drove to work in downtown Atlanta as she usually did. But unknown to her, Brian Nichols had just fled from the Fulton County Courthouse after allegedly killing three people. In the next 15 minutes, police say he would carjack five vehicles. Almeta Kilgo's Mercury Sable was one of them. And until now, she hasn't spoken on camera about it. But tonight she tells us her story of staring down death.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ALMETA KILGO, ATLANTA JOURNAL CONSTITUTION: I was getting my things together to get ready to get out of the car. I had the driver's door open.

A man gets out of the tow truck. And he is walking toward my car really fast. And he has a gun in both hands. He comes around to the driver's side of the door. And he puts the gun up to my head.

ZAHN: What did he say to you, Almeta?

KILGO: He said get over. Get in the passenger side now.

I didn't know what was happening. And -- but I did see the gun right in my face. And I think I started to say something to him to maybe ask him to let me go. And then he said, don't you see this blood on my hands? I'm a dead man. Now, you get over right now.

And at that point, I figured that the best thing I could do is just go ahead and do what he told me to do at that time.

ZAHN: Now, is he screaming this at you or was he pretty calm?

KILGO: He's not screaming. He was calm, but he was like very serious. He was speaking in a quiet, but a commanding voice.

The only thing going through my mind at that time was, how do I get out of this car? You know, I've got to get out of the car.

So my intention was to at some point, before he got out of that garage, my intention was to jump out of that passenger side door.

ZAHN: Are you pleading with him at this point? Let me out of here, don't hurt me?

KILGO: Maybe I was saying something. Because he told me to get out and get in the trunk.

So he stops the car. He says, I tell you what, you get out and get in the trunk. So at that point he pops the trunk open.

ZAHN: And you knew you couldn't get in that trunk?

KILGO: I had no intention of getting in the trunk of that car.

ZAHN: You knew it would be over if you did that?

KILGO: Yes, I did. I knew it would be over.

ZAHN: So what did you do?

KILGO: Well, when I opened the door, I took off running. I started screaming for everything that was in me. I just started screaming.

ZAHN: Why don't you think he shot you at that point as you were fleeing?

KILGO: I don't know. Because the thought as I was running and screaming, I thought that, OK, at any moment now I'm going to feel a bullet in my back. But it didn't happen.

ZAHN: You were really thinking that?

KILGO: I was really think that. I was thinking it was all over for me. But you know, Paula, I knew that I had to at least try to escape.

ZAHN: So what did he do then? You're screaming bloody murder, you're running. What does he do?

KILGO: As I tripped and fell, Paula, I was on my knees, I think. Maybe I was crawling. I don't know. But I was still screaming. And he came up behind me.

ZAHN: On foot.

KILGO: He came up behind me on foot. I turned over. So I'm facing him, you know, kind of scooting back on my hands, and I'm facing him. And he's leaning down over me. And he puts the gun to my head again.

ZAHN: Oh, my gosh.

KILGO: Yes, he tells me, shut up. He keeps saying, shut up, shut up. You're messing me up. You're messing me up. Shut up.

I was looking straight into the barrel of that gun. The only thing I could do was continue to scream.

ZAHN: So how long do you think you were screaming before he finally gave up on you?

KILGO: Maybe 30 seconds, maybe.

ZAHN: So then he just....

KILGO: ...about 45 seconds.

ZAHN: So then he just walked away?

KILGO: Well, yes. He turned around. He went back to my car, he got back in my car. When he turned around and left me, I got up and continued to run over into a corner of the garage where there were a couple of cars parked and it was near the elevators.

And I just sort of backed into the corner like hiding between the cars. And I kept screaming, just trying to get someone to come. Just trying to get someone to come. Because I figured that someone has heard me by now.

ZAHN: So Almeta, how long was it before you realized that the man who threatened your wife was Brian Nichols, a man who would later be accused of killing four people?

KILGO: Well, Paula, it was a little bit after some people had came to help me. They escorted me into the office of this parking garage. And the police had been called. And they were there questioning me.

And while I was sitting there in the office, I overheard some people talking to each other. And they said something like he's killed four people.

ZAHN: How much do you think about why he allowed you to survive?

KILGO: I don't know why he did, Paula. The only thing I can say is that it must have been God, it must have been faith. It just wasn't my time.

ZAHN: The bottom line is that throughout this confrontation with Brian Nichols, you don't know where your strength came from, but you thought you might end up dead?

KILGO: I thought that I would end up dead. I did. But I knew that I wasn't going to give up without a struggle.

ZAHN: How has facing death changed your life, Almeta?

KILGO: Well, Paula, I'm determined to do more things now that really bring joy into my life, you know. And I spent a good deal of my life living for other people, and intend to start living more to do the things I enjoy. You know, I realize the value of spending time with my family and loved ones and the people who mean a lot to me.

ZAHN: Oh, I think we can all learn a lot about the way you handled yourself. We wish you tremendous luck. And thank you for sharing your story with us tonight. KILGO: Thank you, Paula.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: Boy, what a brave woman.

We left messages earlier with Mr. Nichols' attorneys for a response to these allegations. They did not return our calls.

Almeta Kilgo's story was neither the first nor the last on that terrible Friday. The fugitive, after all, escaped outfoxing law enforcement for another 24 hours putting the Atlanta Police Department on the defensive then and today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHIEF RICHARD PENNINGTON, ATLANTA POLICE DEPARTMENT: Many people will criticize. There are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks. And people that say you should have done this and you should have done that. But many of you don't know that it was a crisis. It was chaotic. Calls were coming in. We received over 1500 calls on our task force hot line. And many of our officers had to respond to many of those calls. And you know a lot of those calls did not turn out to locate Brian Nichols.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: As for the future, Chief Pennington says he plans to investigate shortcomings both inside his department and at the Fulton County Sheriff's Office.

Meanwhile, the Montana man accused of plotting to kidnap David Letterman's little boy and the boy's nanny is set to appear in court near Great Falls on Tuesday.

Authorities say 43-year-old Kelly Frank approached another man just about two weeks ago with his idea. It is believed that that is the man who ended up calling the police.

Letterman's son Harry is 16 months old and is frequently mentioned on dad's late night TV show. The comedian owns a ranch near Chateau, Montana, where Kelly Frank worked as a painter. He was arrested earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

JOE COBLE, TETON COUNTY ATTORNEY: He had come up with the idea that he could get $5 million out of David Letterman by kidnapping his son and his nanny. He intended to have the nanny be the caretaker for his -- for Mr. Letterman's son while they were held in captivity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: Kelly Frank was on probation at the time of his arrest.

David Letterman released a statement thanking federal and Montana authorities.

Well, we didn't know it at the time, but two years ago tonight was the eve of the war in Iraq. In the 24 months since the invasion began, 1520 American troops have died, thousands more have been wounded.

Caring for the injured has been an enormous task. Holding on to hope among the sorrow and loss perhaps the greatest challenge. NEWSNIGHT'S Beth Nissen has the story of compassion that I know you won't forget.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BETH NISSEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was a tough deployment for Alpha Surgical Company starting in February near Fallujah. Trauma surgeons worked in 24-hour OR's stabilizing Marines with blast wounds. Navy Lieutenant Commander Heidi Kraft, a clinical psychologist, worked in the Combat Stress Platoon on trauma of another kind.

LT. COMMANDER HEIDI KRAFT, U.S. NAVY: Normal people in this abnormal situation of combat can experience very significant symptoms of shock and sometimes even shutting down psychologically.

NISSEN: Seeing so many, so young, so shattered over seven months was hard on the healers, too. Alone in her barracks room, Dr. Kraft started a list of things that were good and things that were not good about her time in Iraq.

KRAFT: It was partially a self-therapy. I was struggling towards the end of the deployment with how to process everything that we had been through and done and survived together.

NISSEN: The not good list came easily.

KRAFT: Things that were not good: terrifying camel spiders, poisonous scorpions, 132 degrees, sweating in places I didn't know I could like wrists and ears, the roar of helicopters overhead, the popping of gunfire, the crackling sound of giant artillery rounds splitting open against rock and dirt, the shattering of the windows, hiding away from the broken windows, waiting to be told we can come to the hospital to treat the one who were not so lucky, watching the black helicopter with the big red cross on the side landing at our pad, telling a room full of stunned Marines in blood-soaked uniforms that their comrade that they had just tried to save had died of his wounds, washing blood off the boots of one of our young nurses while she told me about the one who bled out in the trauma bay.

NISSEN: She struggled at first to find the positive, but slowly that list formed.

KRAFT: Things that were good: sunset over the desert almost always orange, sunrise over the desert, almost always red, the childlike excitement of having fresh fruit at dinner after going weeks without it, my comrades, some of the things witnessed will traumatize them forever, but they still provided outstanding care to these Marines, but most of all, the United States Marines our patients having them tell us one through another, through blinding pain or morphine endorsed euphoria, when do I get out of here? I just want to get back to my unit.

NISSEN: There was the young sergeant who'd lost one eye, but asked for help to sit up so he could check on members of his fire team being treated for minor shrapnel wounds.

KRAFT: He smiled, lay back down and said, I only have one good eye, Doc, but I can see that my Marines are OK.

NISSEN: And there was the young corporal known to the whole company as Heidi's Marine.

KRAFT: The one who threw himself on a grenade to save the men at his side, who will likely be the first Medal of Honor recipient in over 11 years.

NISSEN: That was Corporal Jason Dunham (ph) age 22. He arrived on the trauma bay on April 14 with a severe head wound. Kraft took his hand, talked to him, comforted him.

KRAFT: I told him we were proud of him. And that the Marines were proud of him. And that he was brave.

NISSEN: Dunham could not speak, could only squeeze her hand in response.

KRAFT: I stayed with him as long as I could. And I held his hand all the way to the point where we got to the helicopter. It was the most wonderful moment of my life and the most horrible moment of my life at the same time.

NISSEN: She wept when she learned that Corporal Dunham had died at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland eight days later. Wept again when Dunham's mother wrote to thank her.

KRAFT: Her biggest fear was that her son had been alone. And that no one had been with him. For me, basically, the whole deployment, all of it, all of it wrapped up at that moment.

NISSEN: The sorrow for the wounded and damaged, the grief for the lost, gratitude for being able to ease another's pain, pride in the U.S. troops for their courage and sacrifice, for Dr. Kraft it was all that was good and not good about Iraq. The ending of both lists is the same.

KRAFT: And finally, above all else, holding the hand of that dying Marine.

NISSEN: Beth Nissen, CNN, New York.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And what a gift that was.

On streets closer to home, another kind of war is being fought. And this one really does involve a weapon of mass destruction.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUCKLEY: What is in that syringe?

DR. MARTIN SCHECHTER, HEROIN STUDY RESEARCHER: In this syringe is a medication known as diacetylmorphine, which is more commonly known as heroin.

ZAHN: More commonly known as a killer. So how about giving the stuff away at taxpayer expense?

Also tonight, they really are everywhere.

KATE, BLOGGER, KATESPOT.COM; I'm just a mom. I blog and just write about my stuff.

ZAHN: Blogging. Why it isn't just for nerds anymore. It's for moms.

Also, he makes us laugh. But that's not all.

GENE WILDER, ACTOR: I knew I wanted to write about my search for love; not lust but love, lasting love, unconditionable love.

ZAHN: Gene Wilder on life, love, Leo Blume and what it's like to kiss Zero Mostel. A Friday conversation, because this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we're back at a quarter past the hour. Time for the other headlines tonight from Erica Hill at "HEADLINE NEWS." Hi, Erica.

HILL: Hi, Paula. Authorities say a convicted sex offender has confessed to kidnapping and murdering Jessica Lunsford. John Couey was arrested in Georgia yesterday on an unrelated charge. He'd been living with relatives across the street from the 9-year-old girl. Investigators now believe he kidnapped her about three weeks ago.

Terri Schiavo's feeding tube has been removed despite Congressional attempts to delay it. Lawyers from the House of Representatives filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to have the tube reinserted. Without it, though, it could take one to two weeks for Terri Schiavo to die.

Former Connecticut Governor John Rowland will report to prison April 1st. The three-term Republican was sentenced today to one year and one day in federal prison for corruption. Rowland cut a plea deal in December admitting he run up more than $100,000 chartered flights and used state money to pay for construction at his lake side home.

And quickly, a St. Louis Congressman is trying to make Mark McGwire's name off a stretch of Interstate 70. It was dedicated after the former Cardinal slugger hit 70 homeruns in one season. But Missouri Democrat William Lacy Clay tells the Associate Press, McGwire hasn't been cooperative enough in a Congressional steroid -- investigation rather, and he no longer deserves the honor.

That's the latest from "HEADLINE NEWS" right now. Paula, back to you.

ZAHN: Thank so much, Erica.

Heroin is known as the hardest of hard drugs. Selling it can get you hard time. And getting clean is notoriously tough. And yet just across the U.S. border a dramatic shift in treating heroin addiction is under way -- a controversial experiment that makes the drug very easy to get and on the taxpayers' dime.

Here's Frank Buckley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

FRANK BUCKLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The polite panhandler...

BRAD CLARK, HEROIN ADDICT: Good afternoon, beautiful lady. Have a nice weekend.

BUCKLEY: ... is Brad Clark. He's working a corner in one of the nicest cities in North America, Vancouver, British Columbia. When Clark has enough money...

CLARK: Thanks brother. God bless you. Have a nice weekend.

BUCKLEY: ... he'll leave downtown Vancouver and head here -- to East Vancouver. An 8- to 10-block section of the city overrun by drug use and open drug sales. There's prostitution, petty crime and violence. Some call East Vancouver Canada's Third World. And this is where Brad Clark lives, on the streets. He's a drug addict.

(on camera): Can you tell me what it's like living down here?

CLARK: It's, to be honest, it's hell. But it's a choice that I made.

BUCKLEY: (voice-over): But Clark says he wants to quit, to stop using heroin and other hard drugs. And he hopes he'll be selected for a controversial study that could help him get clean.

(on camera): Do you want this?

CLARK: Yes. I want it. I want it a lot. But the problem is when you hit a bottom, there's nowhere to go but up. And when you hit a really low bottom it's a long way up. And it's scary.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): The study provides free heroin to heroin addicts -- not on the streets, but under medically supervised conditions.

SCHECHTER: I think that if the study is successful, we may begin to view people down in this neighborhood not as criminals that ought to be hunted, but rather as patients. BUCKLEY: Dr. Martin Schechter, an AIDS researcher from the University of British Columbia, is heading up the clinical trial, which is funded by the Canadian Government.

SCHECHTER: People are pushed into these back alleys. They inject in groups with dirty syringes in the hotel rooms so the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is rampant. And I think if we can get them out of this environment into medical clinics where they use drugs safely and in a way that gets them the extra care they need in terms of counseling and other support, I think we can benefit them tremendously.

BUCKLEY: And benefit society he says, taking away the need for addicts to sell their bodies, break into cars and commit other crimes to fund their addictions.

(on camera): What is in that syringe?

SCHECHTER: In this syringe is a medication known diacetylmorphine, which is commonly known as heroin.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): Syringes like this one are bar coded to track the drug and prevent misuse. Addicts will inject themselves in a highly secured clinic and under the observation of healthcare professionals.

(on camera): The issues facing Canadians as a result of the drug use on these streets are not unique to Canada. In fact, there have been studies in Switzerland and in the Netherlands. But one place where this approach is unlikely to be used is just across the border in the United States.

(voice-over): John Walters is the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

JOHN WALTERS, DIR. OF OFFICE OF DRUG CONTROL POLICY: The fundamental question is why do you want to keep somebody an addict when you know how to treat the disease?

We don't believe that's a model where there's any promise of effective results. We believe in treatment. We believe in recovery.

BUCKLEY: But ask advocates for the Canadian study like Ann Livingston who helps drug addicts in East Vancouver.

(on camera): You work with these people. Will this work?

ANN LIVINGSTON, VANCOUVER AREA NETWORK OF DRUG USERS: I think it will.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): She says U.S. policymakers shouldn't criticize until they've seen the results.

(on camera): They say this is not the right way to do this. What do you say to them? LIVINGSTON: Well, our -- are drugs available in the United States or addicts in the United States getting treatment? That's not what we understand. So, if we want to boast and show us the way, let's see it. But there's a lot of data that shows that this is working.

BUCKLEY (voice-over): The study will take up to two years. And as planned, will include nearly 500 participants in Vancouver and Montreal and Toronto. With their lives stabilized, heroin addicts would be transitioned into treatment. Brad Clark would like to be one of them.

CLARK: If I can get clean and get off the streets, I can be a contributing member of society and not only will I stop costing the public money, I'll start being an asset to the community.

Good afternoon, folks.

BUCKLEY: Frank Buckley, CNN, Vancouver, British Columbia.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And still to come on our program tonight, it is the new way a lot of moms are keeping in touch with other moms throughout the day. They're not talking on the phone, they are blogging. From cyberspace in New York City, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Some dictionaries found on the Internet list the definition for the word "blog," which is appropriate, because blogs can be found only online. A blog shorthand for Web log, it is a journal that invites discussion.

So, in a modern-day twist on meeting for coffee, after dropping the kids off at school or chatting over the back fence a lot of moms are blogging.

Here's Candy Crowley.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Crack open cyberspace and tiny bits of life rain down. I stayed on the couch all morning while Jeff took M.C., to gymnastics, to Starbucks and to Sam's. All three kiddos passed their tests with flying colors. Unfortunately, it was a rapid strep test. The wire under my boob in my bra broke. OK, here's my exciting news.

KATE: I'm being interviewed by CNN. How exciting. I was contacted a few day ago, and to make long story short, they're right here now filming me.

CROWLEY: According to a recent CNN/Gallup Poll, 74 percent of Americans don't know what a blog is.

KATE: I'm just a mom. I blog and just write about my stuff. See you later.

CROWLEY: Her stuff is the stuff of being a mom and a wife, of suburban life in central Jersey.

KATE: Cold as hell at the bus stop. Very windy. Olivia was enjoying the camera and hamming it up big time.

CROWLEY: At Katespot, musings range from a rift Nair hair removal, worries about here daughter's allergies, shock at a contractor's estimate.

KATE: I blog every day. Sometimes I can have one or two entries for the day. Sometimes, I can have, you know, goofy stuff like a quiz or jokes. Something it will be like five or six entries.

CROWLEY: A blog is a diary about the things diaries have always been about, life, thoughts, knowledge. Blogs are written for all the reasons diaries have always been written.

KATE: It's a cleansing -- kind of cathartic. It's nice to put the thoughts down.

CROWLEY: It allows intimacy without closeness. While Kate was cyberchatting with complete stranger, she never told her mother she had a blog. John Grohol, has researched Internet behavior for a decade.

DR. JOHN GROHOL, ONLINE MENTAL HEALTH EXPERT: The Internet has this disinhibition effect, that when you go online and communicate with others through E-mail or what have you, you're more disinhibited than you would be when talking to someone face to face or you're talking to them over the telephone.

CROWLEY: But a blog is a diary out from under the mattress, out there for the world to read. About 250 people a drop by Kate's spot, some of them talk back, like Janee.

KATE: You know, she's got two small children. You know, I have two small children. And, you know, it's nice to read about other people. She lives in New Jersey and she lives up north. So, it's just how she goes through life. And it's neat. I don't know her personally.

CROWLEY: Jaynee began blogging on Cootiehog as a way to communicate beyond the weekly phone call to faraway family. Then noticed complete strangers were reading and commenting.

JAYNEE, BLOGGER, COOTIEHOG.COM: It kind of freaked me out. But then I was excited, like, OK, well, I think my site is really mundane, but obviously somebody else is enjoying it.

CROWLEY: And, in the blogosphere, to read is to get read. So, she read and left comments and her link on other blogs. She posts at work and at home about books and movies and television and kid and church and exercise class. JAYNEE: Maybe if my take on a situation can help somebody else or not, it doesn't matter, you know. I just think it's fun. I enjoy reading other people's blogs. So I guess people enjoy reading about mine as well.

CROWLEY: Blogging, in the end, is beyond a diary, a way to connect with yourself and somebody else. It is affirming.

JAYNEE: It comes down to, there's an audience there.

CROWLEY: I blog, therefore I am?

JAYNEE: I think it is more like I am, therefore, I blog. I have my life. And so, you know, I might as well talk about it.

CROWLEY (on camera): How long do you think you'll keep this up?

JAYNEE: Until there's no more space left.

CROWLEY (voice-over): There are an estimated eight million bloggers in the cyberhood, offering an array of musing so unending that the truly hooked sometimes have to pull themselves back into the neighborhood.

(on camera): Do you ever worry that you could get sucked into the computer and not...

KATE: Yes, and never come back and make that my sole focus? Yes, there are days sometimes where, after I've done like three or four posts in a row, I'm like, now I got to walk.

CROWLEY: Kate and Jaynee have been in and out of each others' blog world lives for almost a year, talking about kids, husbands, books, movies, even the death of loved ones. They know each other well. And, next month, they plan to meet.

Candy Crowley, CNN, Central New Jersey.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And still to come tonight, a conversation with actor Gene Wilder on life and love and the movies no one can ever forget.

From New York, this is NEWSNIGHT.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: There's one thing you can't escape, Gene Wilder movies, not that you'd want to anyway. But over the years, millions of people have grown up watching his work, sometimes laughing, sometimes falling down laughing. Gene Wilder has a following. And he also has a new book out called "Kiss Me Like a Stranger."

He talked about both with Aaron earlier this week.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: You were out there with people today. You did a book signing today. When people come up to you in life, what do they most frequently say?

GENE WILDER, ACTOR: They refer to a movie, their favorite. Usually, it's "Young Frankenstein." Sometimes, it's "Stir Crazy" or "Silver Streak." A lot of times, it's "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." And then some people say "The Producers" is my favorite film of all time.

BROWN: And are you comfortable with that, that that's how they love you?

WILDER: Yes, I am. I think life has changed since I was in movies a lot.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BLAZING SADDLES")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: He can't even hold a gun, much less shoot it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILDER: People see me every day now on television. And they see -- they run those successful films. They keep running them over and over, so people think they just saw me last night. We just saw you last night.

BROWN: They just finished "Blazing Saddles."

WILDER: Yes. And the life of an actor now is so different from what it must have been before. I think Cary Grant will do fine over the years, but other wonderful actors, they say, who? Who is that? I'll say Ronald Colman to someone. My favorite film, "Random Harvest," Ronald Colman. Who is that? Because his films aren't shown that often.

BROWN: There was a point when you became a comedic actor.

WILDER: Yes.

BROWN: Do you -- are there times when you now see a role or you think of a role that's not a comedic role and you say, man, I wish I could -- I wish they'd let me play that? You did play -- you were in "Death of a Salesman."

(CROSSTALK)

WILDER: Yes. Yes, not on film.

BROWN: But -- no, but you did the play with Lee J. Cobb.

WILDER: Changed my life.

BROWN: One of the great plays of all time.

WILDER: Yes, absolutely.

BROWN: And one of the great performances of all time, Lee J. Cobb's.

WILDER: That's when I decided I wanted to be an actor and not a comedian. I was 16 when I saw him in that.

BROWN: Yes.

WILDER: And then, 14 years later, I acted it with him.

BROWN: Was that overwhelming, when you find yourself on stage with Lee J. Cobb in what is arguably one of the great American plays ever written?

(CROSSTALK)

WILDER: Oh, I believe that it was, yes.

BROWN: Absolutely.

WILDER: Overwhelming, yes. The first three or four days, my heart was all the time.

BROWN: Yes.

WILDER: But, afterwards, he was very nice, very kind, very generous. Mildred Dunnock, you say that, most people are going to say, who, you know? But she was a wonderful actress. And she was my guardian angel throughout that. I looked to her for advice after I did a scene. And she'd nod. Or I would say, was I too slow? Was I too fast? Did you believe what I was saying? And she always gave me good advice.

BROWN: Anyway, are there roles...

WILDER: One.

BROWN: And what would it be?

WILDER: It was in a film called "Magic." And Anthony Hopkins played the part. But before he was cast, my best pal Terence Marsh, great production designer, he was doing it. And he suggested me to play the part. And William Goldman, who wrote it, thought I would be wonderful in the part. And the director, you know, Richard Attenborough, said, oh, he'd be wonderful in the part.

Joe Levine said, no, no, no, I don't want any comedians in this. It was what they needed, actually, was someone who would bring humor to a tragic story.

BROWN: Yes.

WILDER: But they cast Anthony Hopkins, who is one of my favorite actors of all time. But I don't think he was right for it, because it was so sad all the time. There was nothing -- there was no opposite to play against, just sadness. That part, I wanted to play.

BROWN: Yes.

You know, it's not like you think, I'd have been a great Atticus Finch or something? There's all these wonderful...

WILDER: No. For every dramatic role, there are 14 other guys who will do it better than me, always.

BROWN: And you're comfortable saying that?

WILDER: Oh, yes. I know it. I'm not a liar. It's true. I don't lie to myself.

BROWN: One of the wonderful things about the book is that you are clearly not a liar.

We'll take a break. we'll talk about the book.

WILDER: OK.

BROWN: We're talking with Gene Wilder.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: We're talking with Gene Wilder.

It seems to me the book bounces between, this is really fun, to, this is kind of painful, to, this is really fun again and interesting, to, my goodness, this is introspective. Is that the book you set out to write or is that the book that happened?

WILDER: It's the book that happened, with one proviso, that I didn't know -- I knew I wanted to write about love, my search for love.

BROWN: Right.

WILDER: Not lust, but love, lasting love, unconditional love, if I could ever find it. And I knew I wanted to write about my search for art, the art of acting.

And I didn't know how to structure it. And about two years ago, I started writing down all the ironic accidents that happened in my life. And, suddenly, it all poured out. And I realized, that was the structure, the accidents in my life. Like, for instance, I think you read that part. But I was miscast, I would say terribly miscast, in "Mother Courage" on Broadway starring Anne Bancroft.

Jerome Robbins miscast me after reading me six times, which is illegal without paying.

(CROSSTALK)

BROWN: You are supposed to the get paid.

(CROSSTALK)

WILDER: After the third one, you are supposed to get paid.

BROWN: Right.

WILDER: I was miscast, but Anne Bancroft's boyfriend was Mel Brooks. And, after I met him and that led to "The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein," but because I was miscast in a play. And it changed my life.

I turned down "See No Evil, Hear No Evil" three times. But my agent, Marty Baum, at the time, said I don't care. I want to you meet these people at TriStar. And I told him what was wrong. I said, they don't know what they're talking about in this script about the deaf and the blind. It's a great concept. He said, we agree with you. And would you write it for you and Richard Pryor?

And I did.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL")

WILDER: Right, right. Cows, cows, cows.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILDER: But then I had to find out about the hearing impaired. So I went to the New York league For the Hard of Hearing and I met my future wife. This was after Gilda had died. And we're married 13 years now. And I'm happier than I've ever been in my life.

BROWN: I don't want to ask a lot of Gilda questions, but...

WILDER: Go ahead.

BROWN: Do you think that people want you to forever mourn, not to be happy?

WILDER: I think some people do. And I feel sorry for them, because, if you found happiness, real happiness, then it would be stupid to waste your life mourning.

And if you asked Gilda, she'd say, don't be a jerk. You know, go out, have fun. Wake up and smell the coffee, you know. I wouldn't waste my life mourning. Would I want to erase the memories I have, the good memories? No, of course, not. But I wouldn't want to mourn for the rest of my life.

BROWN: I want you to tell one or two stories, OK? The first time you meet Zero Mostel.

(LAUGHTER)

WILDER: Mel said, I want you to play Leo Bloom in the movie. But Zero doesn't know you. And he has approval. So, would you come to the office tomorrow, Sidney Glazier's office, and meet him and read one scene with him? My heart was pounding. I got to the office. I knocked on the door. Mel opened the door. I saw Zero Mostel in the background. And he said, come on in.

Gene, this is Z. Z., this is Gene. And I put out my arm to shake hands with him. And Zero grabbed my arm, pulled me to him and kissed me on the lips. All the nervousness drained out of my body. And I knew later that he did that on purpose, so that I wouldn't be nervous. He knew actors and he knew what I must be going through. And I gave a very good reading and I got the part and everything was fine.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE PRODUCERS")

WILDER: My blanket, my blue blanket. Give me my blue blanket.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

WILDER: And I love him. I loved him and I love him.

BROWN: When you said to your dad, I'm going to be an actor, did he ever -- did he ever get it?

(LAUGHTER)

WILDER: I said it to my mother first.

(LAUGHTER)

BROWN: Don't we all?

WILDER: Well, it's funny, because I saw my sister when I was 11 years old doing a dramatic recital of Guy de Maupassant's "The Necklace." It was about -- there were about 200 people in an auditorium.

And they're jabbering away. And, all of a sudden, the lights started to lower. And then a spotlight hit the center of the stage. And out stepped my sister. And everyone shut up and watched her and listened to her. You could hear a pin drop. And I said, that's what I want.

And I went up to her teacher, her acting teacher afterwards. And I said, could I study with you? And he said, how old are you? I said, 11. He said, when you're 13, if you still want to, come back to me. And I asked my mom and dad, could I? And they said, sure you can study. I don't think my father thought that I was going to become a professional actor. But he let me do it. He paid for it. And I started studying acting at 13.

BROWN: At the risk of being fawning, there are few people on the planet who have made me laugh more or sillier or feel better. It is great to meet you and talk to you.

WILDER: Thank you, Aaron.

BROWN: Thank you.

WILDER: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: I'm part of that club, too. Our NEWSNIGHT conversation.

At just about 15 minutes before the hour, let's get a look at the latest headlines from Erica Hill at Headline News.

Hi, Erica.

HILL: Hi again, Paula.

We start in Washington, where lawyers from the House of Representatives have filed an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court to have Terri Schiavo's feeding tube reinserted. Now, without it, it could take one to two weeks for Schiavo to die. The attorney for Terri Schiavo's husband, Michael Schiavo, calls attempts to deny her wishes -- quote -- "disgusting."

Authorities say a convicted sex offender has now confessed to kidnapping and murdering Jessica Lunsford. John Couey was arrested in Georgia yesterday on an unrelated charge. He'd been living with relatives across the street from the 9-year-old girl. Investigators now believe he kidnapped her about three weeks ago.

More violence in Lebanon, several people injured tonight when a car bomb rocked a predominantly Christian area of Beirut. The blast sheared off the side of a building and could be heard five miles away. The bombing comes a month after an attack that killed former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

And those are the latest headlines now from Headline News. I'm Erica Hill.

NEWSNIGHT continues after a short break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: For years, the face of the Cold War was a Soviet diplomat named Andrei Gromyko -- Grim Grom, as he was called in the West, because he never smiled and barely spoke. And, as part of our look at a quarter-century of CNN, the man who replaced him, the face of the end of the Cold War "Then and Now."

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: His political skills earned him the nickname White Fox. The first President Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker called him Shevy.

Eduard Shevardnadze was a product of the Soviet system and also had a hand in dismantling it. He served as foreign minister under Mikhail Gorbachev. And, when the Soviets were done, Shevardnadze returned to his native Republic of Georgia. He led his country out of civil war and into a new century, serving as president in 1995, until he resigned amid election scandal in late 2003.

Once considered Georgia's savior, Shevardnadze is resented in his homeland now, which is still mired in poverty and corruption. But despite several attempts on his life and an offer of refuge in Germany, the 77-year-old still lives in his native Georgia. It's said he has no desire to return to public office. His wife, Nanuli, passed away last year. He has two children and several grandchildren.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And we hope you keep on watching as the year goes along for more of the men and women who changed their world and ours.

In a moment, we'll wrap it things. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: And I wanted to thank you all for joining us tonight on NEWSNIGHT. Aaron is back on Monday.

Have a great weekend.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com


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