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CNN Larry King Live
Interview With Gene Wilder
Aired May 02, 2002 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, a rare interview with Gene Wilder. He lost his beloved wife Gilda Radner to cancer, and then he got cancer too. Find out how one of Hollywood's funniest stars survived some very sad times. Gene Wilder, getting personal, next on LARRY KING LIVE.
It is a joy for me to welcome tonight's guest because I've been looking forward to this for a long time. We don't see him often enough, the brilliant actor/writer/director, one of my favorite folk on the planet, Gene Wilder. What an honor, thank you so much.
GENE WILDER, ACTOR/WRITER/DIRECTOR: Thank you. What a great introduction.
KING: Thank you. What is the state of your health? You were diagnosed, they tell me, with lymphoma in '99; had chemotherapy; declared in remission; and then underwent some stem cell. What's the whole story?
WILDER: I don't want it to be a medical show, but I'll tell you ...
KING: It's not. It's a career show.
WILDER: Yes. I had a unique form a Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. And I went to Sloan-Kettering, and the lady there, who was a great lymphoma expert, says you're very healthy now -- because I've had some chemo and stuff -- and she said you're very healthy. But it's going to come back. My face dropped. And I said, when? And she said six months. So what do I do? She said stem cell transplant. And she sent me to a superb hematologist at Sloan-Kettering by the name of Stephen Nimer. And he took me through it for two-and-a-half hours -- everything -- that was going to happen.
KING: Explaining it to you.
WILDER: Explaining it to me, every step, the good, the bad, the ugly, everything. And I said I want to do it. And when can I act again? And he said when do you want to act? I said six months, because I thought I was going to be doing another murder-mystery then. He said, you're a painter, aren't you? I said yes, water colors. My wife and I water color, paint water colors. And he said you and I are going to paint a masterpiece. You wouldn't want someone to come in just about when we're almost finished and muck it up. Would you? I said not if you put it that way. He said, well, in six months, you're going to feel good, but your immune system is not going to be 100 percent. Could you give it another two or three months? I said absolutely, so I did.
KING: And that was when?
WILDER: That was in two years and two months ago -- well, two years and three months ago because then I started the heavy stuff with the radiation over the entire body and the heavy chemo.
KING: You look great.
WILDER: I'm in complete remission. I'm alive and well.
KING: Will it not come back?
WILDER: They knocked out everything. And I said, well, what do I tell them? I'm going to do Larry King. They said just tell them you're in complete remission.
KING: Now, the stem cells went where? What do they do with them? Do they inject them? What do they do?
WILDER: Well, this is not the kind ...
KING: You're not going to stay on the medicine because ...
WILDER: No, no, this is not what you take from a fetus; this is taken from your own blood. They give you -- they pump you up with a lot of chemo. It produces a lot of white cells and these little stem cells, which haven't made up their minds whether to be red or white yet.
And when the doctor says you're ready, you go in -- I went to Sloan-Kettering -- as an outpatient. You sit in a chair. They hook you up, this arm, this arm. You watch television or read a book. They draw out the blood, go through a machine, extract stem cells, and then they put the blood back in, not the stem cells, just the blood.
And after three sessions like that, they took out seven million stem cells. Then you go into the hospital in isolation and they do -- I did four -- I had full body radiation in the morning and late afternoon four days, and then heavy chemo for five days.
KING: Loose your hair?
WILDER: Everything, yes, everything. I was a billiard ball.
KING: Did it wipe you out too? Get tired?
WILDER: Not too, no. The biggest thing I have to say about -- I'll tell you that in a minute. But they give you a day of rest and then they come in with that bag of stem cells thawed out. They sing happy birthday, and they inject these new stem cells into your blood stream again. And you're miserable for about 10 days. And they wait until those stem cells start to grow. And I'm one of the lucky guys. They said you're the poster boy because everything took. What I'm saying is you can't guarantee. In my case, it did work.
KING: Now you'd lived with this when Gilda, your lovely wife, passed away. Had to come to with the -- how did you learn she had cancer?
WILDER: She had symptoms, fogginess, fell asleep while we were driving in a car -- she wasn't driving; I was driving -- and then wake up and she was fine. She said, oh, I've got to see a doctor, and we went to a doctor. They thought she had Epstein Bar Virus, and the doctor said, if there is such a thing. For 10 months, she went undiagnosed. And then finally she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.
KING: And that's the death certificate?
WILDER: Yes, well. There's only a five percent chance after ...
KING: How did you handle that?
WILDER: I had one brave contribution to make to Gilda. I was so incredibly dumb, it was hard to believe, because I thought she was going to pull through until three weeks before she died. Two-and- three-quarters years, I thought that she would make it. And I would say that to her, and she said really? And I said I'll find -- right now, I'll exchange life spans with you. The irony is that I meant it. I thought that she'd pull through and that she would live longer than I would.
KING: What happened three weeks before?
WILDER: I could see that she wasn't going to make it. And she knew it too. And she recorded her book, "It's Always Something" three weeks before she died because she wanted it to be on record. She'd pull herself out of bed, put a little make-up on, put a skirt and blouse on, be driven to the studio, record her book, come home and get back into bed.
KING: Were the two of you funny? I mean you're so funny.
WILDER: No, but I'm not so funny. She was funny.
KING: You're an actor who does funny things.
WILDER: I'm funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while. Once in a while. But she was funny. She spent more time worrying about being liked than anything else.
KING: How did you meet?
WILDER: On a film. Sidney Poitier was directing a film called "Hanky Panky." And he said, do you want to come with me to New York to see Gilda Radner in "Lunch Hour" on Broadway? I said I don't need to see her, I love her. I've wanted to write something for her for a long time. So it's OK by me. And August 13, 1981, she came to the set and we did our first night shooting.
KING: Our guest is the brilliant Gene Wilder. What a career we should talk about. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "HANKY PANKY")
WILDER: Where are we?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Come on, this way, come on, this way. I've got a car a couple of blocks away.
WILDER: I got to get some clothes.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "HAUNTED HONEYMOON")
WILDER: Sorry, honey. Oh, I see you've already met.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm Fester (ph), the family butler.
WILDER: Yes! And I'm that little boy you used to bathe and tuck into bed and bring warm milk and cookies too, just before you kissed me good night.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: May I have your name, please?
WILDER: My name?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Is he kidding?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Come in, Mr. Kidding, I'll take your bags.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: This is Gilda Radner writing of her first meeting with Mr. Wilder. "My heart fluttered. I was hooked. He was funny and athletic and handsome. He smelled good. I was smitten with love." But she was married at the time and Gene had been married and divorced and in no big hurry to get hitched again. Gilda got a divorce. She and Gene lived together on-and-off for about two-and-a-half years. It became her career to get you to marry her. Why did she have to work at that?
WILDER: I thought she was a baby. She couldn't be without me, do without me. And I ...
WILDER: Yes, dependence. And then her dog got sick, Sparkle. He ate rat poisoning in the airport when we were going to go to New York. And she said the words that changed my life. You go ahead, Darling. I know you love me. You know I love you. You're awfully tired -- we were going to go to France -- go and get a rest, and I'll be here when you get back. That's what I was waiting for for two-and- a-half years. And when I got to France, I said, well, this is crazy. I should marry this girl. You know, she's grown up. In the two-and- a-half years, she's grown up.
KING: You have found love again, right? You are happily married, right?
WILDER: I am desperately in love with a woman named Karen Wilder, who happens to be my wife of 10 years.
KING: How did you meet her? Because you were really down after Gilda's death. You took it very badly, as I remember. Right?
WILDER: Oh yes, yes.
WILDER: Yes. I was offered a film called "See No Evil, Hear No Evil." Wonderful idea ...
KING: Blind and deaf.
WILDER: Terrible script, wonderful idea. And I told my agents so. Six months later, they sent me "See No Evil, Hear No Evil." I said are you crazy? I just turned this down six months ago. I changed agents, not because of that. I went to Marty Baum, CAA. He said come on, I want you to meet the people at Tri-Star about this film "See No Evil, Hear No Evil." I said, Marty, it's a brilliant idea, but -- tell it to them. They want you to do it with Richard Prior. So I went there. I told them everything that was wrong with the script. And they said we agree with you. I said, I'll tell you what. I'll write, start from scratch. I'll write the first 20 pages. You like it, I'll go on. You don't like it, you don't owe me a penny. And we'll part friends.
So I wrote 20 pages for Richard and me. They said that's the film we want to make. I said now I've got to do my research. So I went to the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. Now, I was supposed to meet a Ms. Webb. I said, oh, god. My luck, some New England bitty is going to come out. Out comes this vision in lavender and pink and a little blue, and they said this is Karen Webb. This is Gene Wilder. She takes me into this room to see what I could get from lip reading -- speech reading they call it -- by looking at a monitor. And I looked at the monitor and it's her face on the monitor, about like this. I guessed what she was saying. Then we lowered it to about this and I had to guess some more. And then they did just her lips. And I guessed. And after it was done, I said pretty good. I said fair.
KING: Are you in love yet?
KING: With her.
WILDER: Not yet. Not yet. No. On the third -
KING: You were attracted.
WILDER: I won't say no. It was like a flower that's blooming. I went out a second time with her to a restaurant with a tape recorder. And the third time I said leave the tape recorder at home. And that's time I was in love. And then we got married 10 years ago.
KING: And Gilda still has a special place, though, right? They just aired a special about it the other night.
KING: Gilda will always have a special place.
KING: Karen understand that?
WILDER: Absolutely. She never met Gilda so there was never a question about jealousy. She was great.
KING: Do you have children.
WILDER: Do I? No. I had a daughter and lost her a long while ago. That's too sad a story to go into.
KING: How old was she?
WILDER: When I lost her? Twenty-two or three.
KING: Have you used humor well all your life? Does it work for you?
WILDER: You mean in life?
KING: Yes, when you're down.
WILDER: Or do you mean professionally?
KING: Professionally, we're going to get to that.
KING: You write funny.
WILDER: I write funny. If I can make my wife laugh, I know I'm on the right track. But yes, I don't like to get Maudlin. And I have a tendency towards it.
KING: You do?
WILDER: Yes. Karen isn't like that at all. She's always -- well, she's much healthier than I am. I mean emotionally.
KING: Are you a neurotic?
WILDER: I have a doctor friend, not the doctor you met -- Gilda's psychiatrist -- see I'm blocked by names -- and I said what is neurotic to you? And he said my definition is trying to correct a wrong. And I thought about it for a week and I went back to him a week later. And I said I thought about what you said. I'd like to make an amendment. Spending too much time trying to correct a wrong. He said, I'll accept that. So my idea of neurotic is spending too much time trying to correct a wrong. When I feel that I'm doing that, then I snap out of it.
KING: Now, you play the classic neurotic, Mr. Bloom ...
WILDER: Yes, yes.
KING: In "The Producers" with Zero Mostel, "Byalistock and Bloom" that's just now become the rip-roaring hit on Broadway, and now there's different stars in it now, et cetera. Did you have any idea that that would become the classic it became?
WILDER: No. No. I knew that I loved it, but I didn't think it would be ...
KING: I'll ask about you and Mel Brooks in a minute. Gene Wilder's our guest. Hey, can't go wrong. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL")
WILDER: Jesus, I heard something. I heard your voice!
RICHARD PRYOR, ACTOR: You heard me!
WILDER: Wally, I heard your voice!
PRYOR: You can hear me, Dave.
PRYOR: You can hear me!
WILDER: No! Schmack! I'm deaf! Now you get it?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "THE PRODUCERS")
WILDER: You're going to jump on me! You're going to jump on me! I know you're going to jump on me! Like (UNINTELLIGIBLE) jumped on Pompea!
ZERO MOSTEL, ACTOR: Who?
WILDER: Pompea! She was his wife, and she was unfaithful to him. So he got mad and he jumped on her, up and down, up and down, until he squashed her like a bug! Please don't jump on me!
(END VIDEO CLIP) KING: How did you meet Mel Brooks?
WILDER: I was in a play called "Mother Courage" by Bertolt Brecht, starring Ann Bancroft, whose boyfriend was Mel Brooks. And Mel came by to pick her up each evening after the show. And I was having trouble with one little section in the play. And he said -- he gave me tips on how to act. But he said that's a song and dance. He's proselytizing about communism. Just skip over. Sing and dance right over it, and get on to the good stuff. And he was right. That's the irony. And it is.
KING: What was the first thing he cast you in?
WILDER: Well, then he said would you like to come to Fire Island with Anni and me? I'll read you the first 30 pages of a movie I'm writing. And I went to Fire Island. We went fishing on the surf, came back, had dinner, and then Anni and I sat down and he read 30 pages of "Springtime for Hitler." That's what it was called then.
And then he said would you like to play that part in the movie? I said absolutely. He said all right, all right. So don't take anything in the fall without checking with me. September came and I was offered "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" -- not the movie, the play with Kirgless (ph). So I called Mel. I said I feel a little silly, but you said -- yes, yes, yes. Can you get a four-week out in your contract? I said no one knows me. I can't -- no, they said can you get a two-week out, he said. I said maybe a four-week because I'm not a star. All right, we'll have to live with it. Three years went by.
KING: You did Cuckoo's Nest?
WILDER: Yes. Three years went by, never heard from him. I didn't get a telegram. I didn't get a telephone call. And I'm doing a play called "Love" on Broadway, matinee, taking off my make-up.
Knock-knock on the door, I open the door. There's Mel with a tall stranger. I said Mel. He said you don't think I forgot do you? And he said this is Sidney Glazier, our producer. We're going to do "Springtime for Hitler" now. He said but I can't just cast you. You've got to beat Zero first, tomorrow at 10:00. My heart was pounding. I got to the office door, Sidney Glazier's office. The door opens. There's Mel. He says come on in. "Z?" He calls Zero "Z." This is Gene. Gene, this is "Z." And I put out my hand tentatively.
And Zero grabbed my hand, pulls me to him and kissed me on the lips. And all my nervousness went away. And then we did the reading and I got the part. And everything was fine.
KING: How did you feel when you went to see the Broadway show?
WILDER: I was nervous at the beginning when we sat down. Mel wanted me to see it in preview. The curtain went up, the first laugh came, and I said there's no need to be nervous because this is not the movie. It was great. I thought it was just great. KING: Did you -- when you watch Matthew Broderick do Bloom, and you created Bloom ...
KING: How did it feel to see, for the first time ever, someone else do this nervous, crazy accountant?
WILDER: Yes, it felt good because he was singing and dancing and acting so well. He had trouble with his voice a long time. And when I went back stage, he said how did you do it? I said I only had to do it three times. Once in rehearsal and two takes. You have to do it eight times a week. That's the difference. I thought he was wonderful.
KING: He truly screams.
WILDER: He gets hysterical. And that's when Matthew lost his voice.
KING: Who came up with the little blanket that Bloom carries?
WILDER: That was written into the script. That was Mel. That was Mel. How it was done was me -- I mean how it was acted was me. But that was all in the script.
KING: Now, which came first, "Blazing Saddles" or "Young Frankenstein?"
WILDER: "Blazing Saddles" just before.
KING: Did you like that right away?
WILDER: I did, but I wanted to play the Wako Kid, the part that I did play, and Mel said no, no, no. You're too young. I want an over-the-hill alcoholic. I've got Dan Dailey (ph) who is going to play it. He wanted me to play Harvey Korman's part. I said I'm all wrong for this. And so six weeks went by.
Then Dailey (ph) begged off because he had just finished directing something. So they got Gig Young. Gig Young got into the costume, make-up, on the way to the jail cell, and foam started coming out of his mouth. He was on the wagon suddenly and withdrawing. And Mel thought he was acting some method acting. He said good, keep doing what you're doing. And then he passed out, and Mel said it's a sign from god. He called me from the phone on stage. He said can you come tomorrow. I said I'm supposed to go to London to do "The Little Prince" with Stanley Donen directing. Beg off!
I called Stanley. He said do you really want to do it? I said well, I want to help out Mel. All right. I'll put you at the end of the schedule instead of the beginning. The next day I was in a plane and the next day I was hanging upside down in a jail.
KING: That was a great character, the "Blazing Saddles" guy. And you worked great off the whole cast. Why did that work so well? It was crazy with the passing wind and the hitting of the horse. (One played by Howard Johnson, somebody played lines everywhere) (ph)
KING: They come into town, rape our castle -- they rape our cattle, plus all our women.
WILDER: Madaline Kahn was worth the price of admission when she sang I'm tired. But I think it was because, perhaps, the first surrealistic western. It started a whole trend after that. When they break through the walls and come out and get me out of the set and Harvey Korman takes a taxi cab to Grauman's Chinese Theater ...
KING: Buys raisinettes.
WILDER: Yes, and buys raisinettes. It was a different kind of movie.
KING: It sure was.
WILDER: And the people who made it had predicted that it would do something like $2.2 or $2.7 million domestically. Well, it did $40 million the first round or $60 million first round and $40 million the second round. It was an amazing film.
KING: Do you always ride a horse?
WILDER: Always, yes.
KING: You rode pretty good.
WILDER: Yes. And it "Frisco Kid" and in "The Woman in Red" I had to ride badly. Then you have to really ride well in order to ride badly.
KING: Oh, "The Woman in Red" and "Frisco Kid." We'll talk about "Young Frankenstein" too. Gene Wilder is our guest. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BLAZING SADDLES")
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Like I said, on the count of three. One, two, three.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "STIR CRAZY")
PRYOR: That's right, that's right, we're bad. That's right. Don't want no (EXPLETIVE DELETED) either.
WILDER: We don't want no (EXPLETIVE DELETED).
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: I'm reminded by our crack staff, you were once the hottest male property in Hollywood. Correct? You were the highest paid movie actor. You broke box office records. You had a string of hits.
KING: How did you handle all that? How did your ego deal with all of that?
WILDER: Very well, unlike all the stories you hear about it. I don't mean to sound -- I don't want it to come out funny, but I don't like show business. I love -- I love acting in films. I love it.
KING: But you don't love ...
WILDER: I love painting. I like the show, but I don't like the business. And when I go to a restaurant and they're talking 3.6, 9.8 and how many -- what the budget and the -- everyone is a writer or a director or an actor or a producer and -- it just make me nervous. And Gilda left me this 1734 palace in Connecticut, where I live with Karen. And there's no show business there. And there, I'm very relaxed. I'm very relaxed with you. But we're talking about art. But we're not talking about the business of who.
KING: That's what you don't like.
WILDER: I don't like it.
KING: Therefore, being the number one box office one year meant nothing to you?
WILDER: Well, that was with Richard, and I don't think it would have happened to me alone if I didn't have Richard.
KING: No, but it still happened.
WILDER: It happened, yes.
KING: You never said to yourself, I'm a star?
WILDER: No, no, no because all actors are insecure. I think you must have heard this from other actors, but all of them are insecure, the best of them. Because they think it's all a fake and they're going to discover me and whatever. And I just say, well, go about your business. Do the best you can. You'll probably get another job, but anyway, go.
KING: Henry Fonda said he'd be nervous if he didn't have a script to read. It meant people forgot him.
WILDER: Yes, but we all go through that.
KING: How did "Young Frankenstein" come about?
WILDER: Well, I had just done "Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex" with Woody Allen.
KING: You were the Woolite guy.
WILDER: Yes. I fell in love with a sheep.
KING: In bed with a sheep, drinking Woolite to close the movie.
WILDER: And that's not an easy task, being in bed with a sheep, especially if you make the sheep nervous. I'm not going to go on, if you know what I'm talking about.
KING: Yes, OK.
WILDER: And I finished the film. I loved it. I went back East. And it was March or April and I had a little place in West Hampton Beach, Long Island. And after lunch, I took a yellow legal pad and a blue felt pen and I wrote "Young Frankenstein" on top.
And then for two pages, I thought what could happen to me if I suddenly found out that I was an heir to both Beaufort von Frankenstein's whole estate in Transylvania. And I finished the two pages. I called Mel. I told him, well, I says, cute. Cute. That's all I said. And then later on that summer, Mike Medavoy, who was my agent at the time, is that anything for you and Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman? I said, what made you think of that combination? He says, because I now handle you and Peter and Marty.
I said, well, what a wonderful artistic basis. As it happened, I think I do. Send it to me. I said, no. Give me another day or two. And I wrote two more pages. The Transylvania station -- almost verbatim the way it is. And then put an ending on it.
KING: Track 29?
WILDER: Yes, yes. And Mike Medavoy called me and said, I think I can sell this. What do you think about Mel directing? I said, yes, I'd love it. But you're whistling Dixie, because he won't direct something he didn't conceive of.
But you have to remember that Mel spent two years on "The Producers" and made $25,000 a year. He spent the next two years on "The Twelve Chairs," $25,000 a year. Neither one made a penny. Joe Levine made money, but Mel didn't. They were offering him $250,000 or $25,000 or whatever, to direct this. And he said, yes. He called me. He said, what are you getting me into? I said, nothing you don't want to get into. I don't know, I don't know, I don't know. Next day they, we signed Mel. And...
KING: And then you got the original Frankenstein set, right?
WILDER: No, not the set. But Dale Hennesy made a great set. But the original scientific equipment...
KING: Oh, all...
WILDER: ... all those bubbles and glass and everything -- that was all the original stuff.
KING: Peter Boyle -- genius to play Frankenstein.
WILDER: He's just -- he was the best, he was the quintessential monster.
KING: When you feed him the thing, when he's doing the dance...
WILDER: Yes. M&Ms.
KING: Now, how about Marty Feldman, the late Marty Feldman?
KING: He died too young.
WILDER: He carried a cigarette lighter around his chest. He smoked three packs a day. He was in Mexico doing a film, locked the door. And he got a heart attack and no one could get in. And when they got to him, it was too late. But...
KING: What's he like to work with?
WILDER: Who would I?
KING: What was he like to work with?
WILDER: Oh, he was wow!
KING: I can fix that.
WILDER: Well, you know -- you know all about it.
KING: I know it all, though.
WILDER: He was a very shy man. But, like a lot of us, when the camera's rolling, he's not shy. Or if he had one too many to drink. I don't drink that much, but when he went to a party and he was nervous, 20th Century Fox is giving a big whatever, he'd start shouting things out, and cursing and -- but he was an angel. He was almost literally an angel on earth.
KING: What was it like to get an Academy Award nomination early in a career? You had one for "The Producers."
WILDER: Yes, it was wonderful. I just was praying that I wouldn't get the award, because I'd have to get up and make a speech, and I was too nervous to make the speech. But...
KING: Didn't want to win.
WILDER: Well, you know, I say that. I didn't want to have to get up and make the speech. Sure, I wanted to win, if they had said, I was in England doing something and -- accepting on behalf of Gene Wilder, here's Mel Brooks, or something. You know, that would have fine. KING "Willy Wonka," which is still -- many people... how did that come about.
WILDER: Yes, yes...
KING: ... still their favorite song. WILDER: I was offered the part. I had read the book, and Mel Stuart, the director, came to my home in New York. And he said, do you want to do it? I said, well, I'll tell you. I'd like to do it if I can come out, and all the crowd quiets down, and I'm using a cane. Oh, my, God! Willy Wonka is crippled. And I walk slowly. You can hear a pin drop. And my cane gets stuck in a brick, and I do -- I fall over on my face and do a forward somersault and jump up, and they all start to applaud.
He says, what -- Mel Stuart said, what do you want to do that for? I said, because no one will know from that point on whether I'm lying or telling the truth. He said, are you saying you won't do the film if you can't do that? I said, that's what I'm saying. OK. Do it. And I meant it.
KING: You're an unusual guy.
WILDER: Yes, yes.
KING: Gene Wilder's our guest. What can you say? We'll be right back. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "BONNIE AND CLYDE")
WILDER: Step on it, Velma. Step on it, Velma. Step on it, Velma.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I am!
FAYE DUNAWAY, ACTRESS: What do you want to do that for, Clyde?
WILDER: Step on it, Velma. Step on it, Velma. Velma, step on it, Velma.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: Your first movie, Gene Wilder, was "Bonnie and Clyde" right.
WILDER: Yes, that's right.
KING: Not a funny...
WILDER: No, no. But I was -- I was amusing in it.
KING: Yes, because you had to play that offbeat.
WILDER: Yes. I was an undertaker.
KING: Do you enjoy playing serious? Your fame is in comedy.
WILDER: Yes. I enjoy it, but there's 14 other guys who will always do it better than me. But if it's a comedy, it's a different story. KING: And what do you think that is? Since you say you're not funny, you're not a comedian...
KING: ... you could never do stand-up.
WILDER: No, no.
KING: You would die.
KING: OK, yes. So what do you have? What is it that you have -- because you're very introspective -- about you? What makes you...
WILDER: I studied for, altogether maybe 18 years. I got accepted into the actor's studio. I would approach doing Leo Bloom in "The Producers" in the same way as I would do "Death of Salesman." But the choices would be different. I would make comic choices. But the acting process -- create a human being -- was real, not only to the audience, but real to me.
KING: Leo Bloom doesn't think he's funny.
WILDER: No, no.
KING: He's a real guy.
WILDER: Right, absolutely. And so I think that if you want to say you're a method comic actor, yes -- without getting into what method is -- but a Stanislavsky comic actor, yes. Because I'm trying to do it the same I would.
KING: What worked so well between you and Pryor?
WILDER: Well, that's a real mystery. It's -- I hope this comes out right -- but it's a little bit like sex, you know. When you meet someone and the chemistry is there, you don't know why, you don't know how, but it's there. I met him the night before we did our first scene. We hugged. We did the first scene, and he said something, and I something -- and it wasn't in the script -- after the camera started rolling. And it went very well.
And he said, did you know you were going to say that? I said, no. Did you know you were going to say that? He said, no. I never improvised in a film before. In classes I did, but not in a film. But with him, I always improvised. Because if you don't you're not going to be anywhere, not with Richard.
KING: How many movies have you made?
WILDER: I don't know.
KING: "Sherlock Holmes"...
WILDER: "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother"...
WILDER: "Rose Garden Flower."
KING: "Rose Garden Flower."
WILDER: "Woman in Red" with Kelly Le Brock.
KING: What a movie that was.
WILDER: Yes. And...
KING: You ever turn down anything you felt sorry about?
WILDER: Never. I've turned down lots of movies, but none that I felt sorry about. Some that I wish I had done, that I wasn't offered. I wanted to do -- there was this film called "Magic" that Anthony Hopkins did.
KING: Yes. Scary movie.
WILDER: And the director wanted me. The writer wanted me. Joe Levine said...
KING: A puppet that killed.
WILDER: Yes. Joe Levine said, no, I don't want any comedians in this. I'm not a comedian. But that's what it needed, was someone who was trying to be funny, but was really tragic.
KING: Well, what do you do now, Gene? What kind of parts that you get...
WILDER: I paint watercolors.
KING: You don't act?
WILDER: Yes, I do. I'm acting now, for you. No, what kind of parts?
WILDER: Well, I love doing the murder mysteries. But I know I'll always be better and happier when I'm doing a comedy. But I like it to be a comedy with some substance, not a silly -- I mean, I like farce. But I just did with Carol Kane and Bob Vichy (ph), Jean Sachs (ph) directing -- I did a one-act Chekhov play called "The Marriage Proposal."
WILDER: At the Westport Country Playhouse, where Joanne Woodward is artistic director.
KING: Well, what kind of movie offers do you get? WILDER: Well, not ones that I want to do, yet. But that'll come.
KING: Mel going to do another one with you? Another film?
WILDER: I doubt it. I doubt it.
KING: Too much success? With Broadway? He's on Broadway.
WILDER: Yes, where is he going to go?
KING: He's a mogul.
WILDER: After this. That's what he said, anyway.
KING: Happy for him?
WILDER: Oh, very happy. Very happy, if he can enjoy it.
KING: What do you mean?
WILDER: Well, you know, success is a terrible thing and a wonderful thing. If you can enjoy it, it's wonderful. If it starts eating away at you and they're waiting for more from me, or what can I do to top this, then you're in trouble. Just do what you love. That's all I want to do.
KING: It's a tough business. It's a business you don't like, but it's a tough business. What do you like about doing it? What do you like about being Bloom? Or being Frankenstein's son?
WILDER: I love acting, especially if it's a fantasy of some kind, where it's not just realistic, it's not natural...
KING: Or being Frankenstein's son?
WILDER: I love acting, especially if it's a fantasy of some kind, where it's not just realistic, it's not naturalism. I love acting in the '30s, too. I mean 1930s. But I like -- it's not that I want to be someone different from me, but I suppose it partly is that. I love creating a character in a fantastical situation, like Dr. Frankenstein, like Leo Bloom, a little caterpillar who blossoms into a butterfly. I love that.
I love the art of acting, and I love film, because you always have another chance if you want it. You know, if we -- if this isn't going well, you can't say -- well, you could say -- let's stop. Let's start over again, Gene, because you were too nervous.
KING: Well, we don't tape a lot. We have...
KING: ... we go live.
WILDER: I know. And that's, you know, it's difficult. But I love movies because you have another shot at it. Let me try something else. And you try something completely different. And I love that part of it.
KING: You also have to know what's funny, because the crew ain't laughing.
WILDER: No, not out -- well, sometimes -- and "Young Frankenstein" they laughed out loud and ruined a few takes.
KING: We'll be back with our remaining moments with Gene Wilder, we hope the first of many visits. Don't go away.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP, "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN")
WILDER: Alive! It's alive! It's alive!
(END VIDEO CLIP)
KING: In our remaining moments, let's go back a little to Gilda. Tell me about Gilda's Club.
WILDER: Gilda went to the wellness community when she was here. Her cancer therapist Joanna Bull urged her to go, and she didn't want to go. She didn't want to be without the people at the cancer (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And she finally went. She came home singing and dancing. She says, it's wonderful.
I was a star of the show, and so on and so on and so on. And she died -- well, before she died, we were in Connecticut. She started crying because there was no place like that for her to go to. And then she died, and Joanna Bull and I, and Joel Siegel, started to try to get Gilda's Club going. We called it -- I called it Gilda's Club, because, that's what Gilda would like. And it's a wonderful place. And it took -- I thought it would take a year, a year-and-a-half.
It took about four-and-a-half years to get the money to get it going. And now there are at least eight of them in the U.S. There's in Montreal.
KING: These are people with...
KING: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE).
WILDER: Anyone with cancer and their families and their friends, free of charge, to get emotional support -- emotional and psychological support.
KING: Did Gilda -- the way she handled it -- help you handle yours?
WILDER: Yes. Yes. I wasn't scared of cancer. And by the time I did get it, I had no complaints about life. KING: Even though she died.
WILDER: Yes, I know. But I had a full life. I wanted it to be longer. But I was in love. I had a beautiful home. I was very happy, and I said, if that's what happens, I have no complaints. Well, it turns out, I'm a very lucky guy. That was the miracle of stem cell cancer plants.
KING: What's it like to hear the words -- you have cancer.
WILDER: The reaction by most of the people I've come across is -- (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- you know, denial.
WILDER: They've -- it's very hard to accept. When I found that I had it, I didn't -- I wasn't in denial. I said, well, I didn't know how it happened. And I still don't know how it happened. Non- Hodgkin's lymphoma. But I said, what do we do about it? And I was -- I have a healthy heart, healthy lungs, healthy kidneys. And I wasn't a chubby hubby. I was in very good shape. And I said, let's do it. Let's get on with it. And it's turned out, it worked. But some of us are better at it than others. If I hadn't been through it with Gilda, I might have been more scared.
KING: Was Gilda's painful?
WILDER: Oh, yes.
KING: I mean, physically painful.
WILDER: Whatever anyone might have read in the book, that was only the start. It got much worse after that. It was very difficult.
KING: People die, they say, as they live. Did she die well?
WILDER: Oh, she died very well. But she wanted to -- she wanted to get out. On the day -- the last time I saw her alive and talking, she was on a gurney with her skirt and blouse on. They wanted to take her down and she tried to jump off the gurney. I got to get out of here, I got to get out of here. I said, honey, just let them decide. Yes, I know. But I got to get out of here. I've got to get out. She knew that she wouldn't be coming back up in the same form. And when she did come back up, she was on a morphine drip. So she knew it. But she died, I mean, she recorded the book before she died, so...
KING: Do you have faith, Gene? Are you an optimist?
WILDER: Yes. I'm an optimist that -- you're not talking about religion are you? Just...
KING: What do you believe in? Somebody out there, someplace?
WILDER: You asked Stephen Hawking this one.
KING: Yes. WILDER: And he said, if by God you mean the mathematical equation that accounts for the creation of the solar systems and the black hole, yes, I do believe. I'd give the same answer.
KING: You are a very happy person today.
KING: Healthy and happy.
KING: Yes. Is there anything you want to do that you haven't done?
WILDER: Yes. I'd like to do a comedy with Emma Thompson.
KING: Emma Thompson.
WILDER: Yes. Emma Thompson. Because I admire her.
KING: She's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to cancer? I was sure she did?
WILDER: I couldn't. No. That was more. Too tough.
KING: So, then...
WILDER: I admire her as an actress so much. I love her. And I didn't know it until recently that her whole career started in comedy. And then she wrote me something that, she said, if I had my druthers, and we could start over again, you and I would do 75 comedies together.
KING: What makes you laugh? Did Jack Lemmon make you laugh?
WILDER: Yes, sometimes. Yes. Dom DeLuise makes me laugh the most. If it's a good picture, Ben Stiller makes me laugh. Oddly enough, when I saw Robert De Niro in "Meet the Parents," and "Analyze This," Robert De Niro made me laugh.
KING: Of course, he's such a good actor.
WILDER: He's very good. He knew how to play it, you know, it was wonderful.
KING: Gene, what an honor this has been.
WILDER: Thank you.
KING: And we'll do it again.
WILDER: OK. Thanks, Larry.
KING: Long life.
WILDER: Thank you. KING: Gene Wilder. Hope you enjoyed this, because I sure did. Stay tuned for "NEWSNIGHT" with Aaron Brown. I'm Larry King. Good night
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