Gene Wilder: Comic, Legend—and Author

Gene Wilder was a legend, a comedic genius whose passing was a shock to many. After nearly three decades of self-imposed semi-retirement, Wilder passed away from complications from Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 83. He was diagnosed several years ago, but in classic Wilder fashion chose to keep his affliction private.

Many people were surprised by Wilder’s death—surprised to discover how old he was, since most of us remember him very vividly as a young man in a string of classic comedies throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and surprised to hear he was sick. Some were also surprised to realize just how long it’s been since he worked regularly; aside from a few television appearances, Wilder hasn’t done much of note since the early 1990s. This semi-retirement was entirely by choice, though; Wilder stated several times that he simply didn’t like the work he was being offered, and chose to relax. Considering he was 58 when his last big movie, 1991’s Another You, hit theaters, the fact that he chose to quietly step out of the limelight isn’t too surprising.

Something else that surprises people: Wilder was an accomplished writer, both of screenplays (he wrote eight films, including the all-time classic screenplay for Young Frankenstein) and novels. In fact, as his four (yes, four) published novels climb up the Amazon bestseller lists this week, it’s an obvious moment to remind everyone that Wilder wasn’t just a genius at physical comedy and line readings—he was also a genius at writing, in both comedy and more serious fare. Here’s a rundown of Wilder’s written works.

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Kiss Me Like a Stranger (2005)

Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder
Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder.

Wilder’s memoir is beautifully written, and refreshingly honest and direct. He ranges between ruminations about his childhood and how his experiences with a sick mother in the Midwest shaped his life, to his early ambitions in drama (his first roles were in Shakespeare, and his first film role was in 1967’s Bonnie & Clyde), to his peak career years working with Richard Pryor and Mel Brooks, and beyond. His discussion of his time with third wife Gilda Radner and the shattering illness—and the guilt he carried from her late diagnosis and other decisions regarding her health and treatment—are as emotional and engaging as anything you’ll ever read, and his in-depth discussions of his craft and approach to writing and acting are revelations for anyone who wants to follow in his performing footsteps or simply appreciates those who do.

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My French Whore (2008)

My French Whore by Gene Wilder
My French Whore by Gene Wilder.

Wilder’s first novel is based on an idea he first had in the 1960s; he even wrote an early screenplay based on it that he freely admits wasn’t very good. Forty years later, he returned to that kernel of an idea and wrote this remarkable novel about a young American in an unhappy marriage in 1918 who ships off to World War I. A fluent German speaker, Paul Peachy is ordered to question a captured German super spy Harry Stroller. The two develop a rapport and Peachy hears Stroller’s stories about his life and career. When captured by Germans later on, Peachy saves himself by claiming to be Stroller, and forms a bond with the German commanding officer, who rewards him with a prostitute—the French Whore of the title. Peachy falls in love, and even though he knows his deception can’t last forever, chooses to risk his life by continuing to pretend to be Stroller just so he can have a little more time with her. Wilder’s prose is clean and bright, and his story is both sentimental and bleak at the same time. Wilder was an expert at combining this sort of gentle warmth and scary anger in his performances, and that comes through in this book.

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The Woman Who Wouldn’t (2009)

The Woman Who Wouldn't by Gene Wilder
The Woman Who Wouldn't by Gene Wilder.

For his second novel, Wilder once again retreated to the past. Set in 1903, this is a love story, plain and simple—but as with all things Wilder, a love story peppered with sharp edges. When Jeremy Webb has a public breakdown while performing with the Cleveland Orchestra, he finds himself banished to a health resort in Germany. There the flirtatious Webb meets Clara Mulpas, an incredibly beautiful woman he determines he will seduce. Jeremy’s never had much trouble with the ladies before, but Clara’s unhappy marriage has soured her against men in general, and Jeremy has his work cut out for him. What begins as a comedy starring a cad slowly transforms into a true love story, and it’s this novel that really marked Wilder as a great novelist as well as a comedian.

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What is This Thing Called Love (2010)

What Is This Thing Called Love? by Gene Wilder
What Is This Thing Called Love? by Gene Wilder.

Wilder turned to the short form in this collection of stories that explore love and relationships and the often hilarious ridiculousness of life in general. Only a man who had seen some things and lived a bit could write these stories, and their brevity and wit make them ideal palate cleansers after longer, more morose works. Wilder’s a bit looser in these stories, reminding readers a bit of Woody Allen’s early fiction, and he’s more willing to go for punch lines as opposed to the existential points of his novels—but all of these stories are delightful.

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Something to Remember You By (2013)

Something to Remember You By by Gene Wilder
Something to Remember You By by Gene Wilder.

Published just as Wilder received his (then private) diagnosis, his final novel is set during World War II. An injured American soldier convalesces in London and meets a charming Danish woman who claims to work for the War Office. But when Tom Cole falls in love and seeks to visit her, she’s nowhere to be found—and he must confront the possibility that she’s not what she seems. The story takes a surprisingly heavy and dramatic turn, but Wilder’s energetic ideas and clear love for his characters and story elevate this short novel into something truly special.

More to Read About Gene Wilder

To put Wilder in perspective, you not only have to see his films, you should read his words—and read about him. Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad is an excellent biography of the man, and Gilda Radner’s memoir It’s Always Something not only offers a glimpse of her and her own unique genius, but a glimpse of their legendary and tragic romance. Gene Wilder will be missed—but with his body work, he will never be forgotten.