Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman

Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman

Gene Wilder and Marty Feldman shared the same agent, but didn’t know each other. One day Marty was introduced to Gene over the phone who announced he was writing a part for him in a screenplay called “Young Frankenstein.” Marty said “sounds great,” never expecting to hear about this again. After all, the film was just a notion, hadn’t been set up.

Nevertheless, Gene sent Marty pages, specifically the sequence wherein “Aye-gore” meets “Dr. Fronkenstein.” Many months later, this would be the first scene the two men shot together.

Gene Wilder was a man of his word. That turned him, in the words of Marty’s wife Lauretta, into “a saint.” That sainthood would be confirmed further down the road.

Gene went to bat for Marty since Mel Brooks “eyed” playing the role of the hunchback himself, but Wilder was steadfast. He only wanted Brooks to direct. By relegating leading man duties to Wilder and remaining behind the camera, Mel Brooks wrought his best work as a filmmaker.

Marty was nervous shooting his first scene in a major Hollywood movie with an established star that’d co-written the script, but Gene instantly approved of everything Marty was doing. This emboldened Marty to pause before delivering the classic line “What hump?” Mel Brooks kvetched “You can drive a truck through that pause,” but Gene and Marty melded into a comedy team with inimitable rhythm. Gene’s bewildered exasperation got the laugh after “What hump?” when he said: “Let’s go.”

Marty felt relaxed enough to improvise “walk this way” as a joke for the crew. Mel instructed him to “leave it in.” Marty explained he was just “screwing around” and how it was “a terrible old joke.” Mel Brooks decreed “it’s funny” and, as Marty would later attest, his instincts were always right.

Gene had trouble completing takes without cracking up. Marty found it lovely to have a leading man that found his fellow actors so funny. Marty also had insight: Since this was the first produced screenplay Wilder had co-written… he was also enjoying his own words.

Marty was floored by the finished product, especially Gene’s performance. On set Wilder was an actor struggling to get through takes without laughing, but on the big screen, playing the title role… Gene Wilder had reached comic nirvana.

Marty recounted how Wilder once mentioned that he never wanted to “act like some asshole movie star” and never did. Marty was thrilled when Gene told him he was writing another part for him, this time in “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” which Wilder directed on Feldman’s home turf of the UK.

Many years later, Marty passed away at the age of 48. I didn’t see Gene Wilder at the funeral, but decades later Marty’s widow told me a story that confirmed her appraisal of the man. It’s something that’s never ever been written. Wilder called Lauretta after the memorial, concerned not just about her emotional well-being, but fiscal.

“Do you own your home?” asked Wilder. Lauretta replied “no, why?” “Because if you need me to,” Wilder offered, “I’ll buy it for you.”

“Virtue is the truest nobility.” ~ Miguel de Cervantes

Gene Wilder played many characters in his lifetime, but the best role he ever played was himself.