Yesterday, it was announced that Gene Wilder (Jerome Silberman) had passed away at the age of 83. When I heard the news, I was disillusioned. It would mark the first time I was genuinely sad about an actor passing away. There is always the general empathy for a person’s passing (at least I would think so), but Gene Wilder was a different kind of special to me.
I grew up in a small little town in Maryland. This town, at the time, had one video store and it was owned and operated by my uncle. My mom worked there part time during the week and my school bus would drop me off at the store.
It was heaven to me. To have any and every VHS (and Beta) tape available to entertain me while I waited for my mom to get off work was magical. It was then at some point I was introduced to the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory based on Roald Dahl’s story. It was a love affair that started 26 years ago, and continues to this day.
While looking for Gene Wilder pictures a few years ago, I happen to stumble on the fact that he had written a few books. Now at the time of this discovery, I didn’t read books. I thought about buying Kiss Me Like a Stranger, with the caveat that I would “someday” read it. Fast forward to now, a day after his announced passing, I decided to read that book.
Kiss Me, Kiss Me
I started reading this memoir this morning. Now as a disclaimer, I’m Pages’ resident audio-book nerd. With that said, when I purchased KMLS, I was ecstatic to find out Gene himself narrated the book. On my car ride into work, I had the mental image of Gene riding shotgun, delivering lines genuinely and soft spoken like he always did.
KMLS, starts out with Gene explaining how life is a seires of moments and that these moments are based on the minutae of choices we make everyday.
When Gene was 13, his mother was sick. She felt like he could get better attention and education at an academy. Through a recommendation from her cousin, Gene set off to Blackfox academy. What she didn’t know was this military academy was the sort of place kids went when their parents didn’t want to deal with them. Random sexual acts and viloence were commonplace at the academy. Gene did his best to avoid the physical abuse. Gene wrote home to his mom and dad, but he only told his dad about the things that went on there. Mainly to save his mom the hurt.
After a trip home for the holidays, the discovery of his bruises and scrapes caused shock upon his mother. They never sent him back.
Shortly after his return home, he acted in his first play at 15 as Balthasar in Romeo and Juliet. Soon, his career moved forward as he studied under new teachers/actors.
During his next gig, the romantic tangles of an awkward kid began when an adulterous relationship formed between him and his stage partner Rita. At first it was professional, but within weeks, Rita started to fall for Gene. You start to see the results of early adolescent trauma reer it’s head with his love interests.Through out the book, romantic relationships bloom and whither. Multiple marriages and the adoption of a child rise and fall. The moments and experiences seem vivid, but as the pov, he’s blinded by his nervous and akward demeanor.
Gene ponders thoughts on his way to see Marjorie, his psychiatrist. Shes asks him to always be honest with her regardless of how insignificant he may think something is..Gene uses her as a point of reference through out the story as she becomes an integral part of his life. Gene sees her initially for an compulsion that impacts him through out his adult life. Marjorie is a much needed reality check and soother for Gene.
Gene was drafted into the Army in his twenties, and through some help from his talents of acting and writing, and a nice letter from the wife of the base commander let him choose which base he wanted to finish up his stint in. Gene chose a base in Pennsylvania, worked in the Hospital’s neurology center. While there he aided the neurologists in the treatment of mentally unstable and PTSD clients. This was during the time when Electro-shock treatment was still okay. At first it really bothered him, but he started to see that some good did come of it.
After he finished his time with the Army, he returned to acting. I will not ramble on about his acting career, as I could probably write 2 more article on that.
I’m very biased when I say this, but I loved this book. I’ve had a weird and strong connection with the Candy Man since I was little. I wish there was a document on how many times I have seen him in Blazing Saddles, See No Evil/Hear No Evil, but most of which, Willy Wonka.
If you’ve ever had a connection with Gene or Willy Wonka, read this book and take a peak into this gentle mans life.