There's a reason there are no Gene Wilder impersonators

Posted August 31

If you search YouTube, you can’t find any big-name comedians who do a Gene Wilder impression.

There are a handful of amateurs who make an attempt, but most of them are pretty bad. And you can find truckloads of people who do a great Jack Nicholson or a perfect William Shatner. There are oodles of John Waynes and Jimmy Stewarts and enough Arnold Schwarzeneggers to choke a horse. But nope, no Gene Wilders.

I think that’s remarkable.

Of course, you can try to argue that Wilder wasn’t a big enough name to merit the attention, but two minutes at imdb.com would prove you wrong. His well-known roles include "The Producers," "Blazing Saddles," "Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Young Frankenstein" and a string of movies with Richard Pryor. Wilder was a huge box-office draw for well over two decades, and his quirky persona was just begging to have Robin Williams sneak a harried Wilder-esque cameo into one of the Aladdin genie’s improv riffs. But he isn’t there. Why isn’t he there?

I have a theory.

I think the lack of Wilder impressions isn’t due to the fact that comedians didn’t want to do a Wilder impression. I think it’s that no comedian was capable of doing a Wilder impression. I think Wilder was such a strange and delightful mix of innocence, wisdom and mania that nobody who has ever made the attempt to replicate that delicate balance has come close to success.

Look at “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” where Wilder plays a paranoid psychopath with no regard for the safety of children. You probably wouldn’t think to describe his character that way, but after Wonka blithely stands by as children turn into blueberries and get thrown into incinerators with the other bad eggs, there’s really no denying that the label fits. No, the reason you don’t think of Willy Wonka as a sadistic monster is that Wilder played him with such ineffable sweetness. When (spoiler alert) Wonka offers Charlie his chocolate factory at the end of the film, it’s pure joy. You completely forgive the moment from 20 minutes earlier when Wonka’s indifference almost led to Charlie and his grandfather being sliced to pieces by a ceiling fan.

You see Wilder’s indelible stamp on that role when you watch the inferior remake of the same story with Johnny Depp stepping into the title role. That movie, and Depp’s performance, was creepy from beginning to end. Wilder’s version should have been creepy, too, but it wasn’t. Why wasn’t it?

Because whenever Wilder was on the screen, you couldn’t help but love him.

You can see that in his breakout role in “The Producers,” where Wilder played a harried young accountant who hatches a scam to produce a Broadway flop and bilk all the investors out of their money. His scheme is diabolical, but you never hold it against him. He plays the role like a babe lost in the woods, and he even has a moment where he caresses his baby blanket when things get too stressful. In the hands of anyone else, such a moment would have been saccharine and stupid. Wilder made it genuinely funny and somehow touching at the same time. Who else could have done that? Who could do that today? I can’t think of anyone else.

Gene Wilder has left us now, and we will not see his like again. You can take that to the bank. After all, if they couldn’t even impersonate him when he was alive, what makes you think anyone else could possibly match his genius now that he’s gone?

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.


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