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Keeping the Candle Burning

The first thing you notice about Gene Wilder are his eyes. Blue and limpid, they radiate a serenity one does not immediately associate with this most antic of comic screen actors, taking you in with a gaze at once hard, searching and kind. On occasion, they light up like braziers in a Transylvanian night.

Gene lives in the backcountry of Stamford with his wife Karen, a former speech therapist he met in 1988 while working on the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil. It was the third of four films teaming Wilder with Richard Pryor. Gene was playing a deaf man in the movie, and he was seeking professional advice on how to assay his role in a convincing, noninsulting manner. He and Karen immediately hit it off. The Wilders have been married for fifteen years now, and their affection appears as total as that of a pair of smitten teens. Just what kind of Hollywood marriage is this?

“No matter how one answers that question, it comes out corny and trite,” Gene says. “What are the secrets of love? I’d put that in a book, not two sentences.”

“Maybe it’s the house,” offers Karen, trying to help out. “It just brings love.”

“No, it’s not the house,” her husband replies with a chuckle. “The house is nice, but it’s not the house.”

The house is warm and comfy, bespeaking an interest in matters other than Gene’s film work, which still defines his public image since his last big-screen appearance, in 1991’s Another You. In fact, once you get past the inclination to search the walls for revolving bookcases (“Put zee candle back!”) or snozzberry-flavored wallpaper, you have a good sense of where the movie star’s head has been since forsaking Hollywood for Fairfield County.

In the living room is a vast canvas depicting two men in a field playing cards. The trees in the background are impressionistic, but the figures in the foreground are vividly portrayed. Gene calls attention to the reserved expression of one player and the joy of the other as he is about to lay down his trump.

“You can see the twinkle of his eye even though he’s in profile, which the painter suggests with just a single dot of white,” he says. “Details like that fascinate me.”

Gene has been busy the last few years with paintings of his own, some of which line the walls of the house. Portraits all, including a self-portrait that captures Gene’s famously unruly flaxen mop with a few deft, broad swipes of maize. The canvases are done in watercolor, of people young and old, male and female, the shapes and colors striking in their abstract way of capturing a personality, a mood. In each, the eyes are the strongest feature, looking at the viewer as if establishing a silent connection.

“He is intensely interested in exploring the psychology of the people he knows best,” says Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum of American Art, which hosted the first-ever exhibition of Gene’s portraits in 2005. The show drew more than 600 people its first day. Hyland says that many people were impressed by the boldly immersive nature of the pieces on display: “You had this unusual situation of a person who is a creative, amazingly talented actor who turns his sights on other people.”

Gene, who has been painting since the 1980s, declaims any opening night jitters in New Britain: “No, because I’m not a painter, I’m an actor,” he says. “And I’m not an actor, I’m a writer. I can always pass it off as something else.”

Writing has actually defined Gene’s career of late. Last year saw the publication of his bestselling memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, a startlingly frank, beguilingly episodic account of his acting career, his private life and their various points of intersection, recently out in paperback. Now the seventy-three-year-old is following that success by launching his latest artistic incarnation, as a novelist, with My French Whore, a romance set in World War I. It hits bookstores on Valentine’s Day.

Gene explains the plot: “A young soldier from Milwaukee, Wisconsin [Gene’s own birthplace], in 1918, very unhappily married. He enlists and goes to France, in the trenches, and then most of the story takes place in Germany when he’s assuming another character, a spy, pretending to be to save his life.”

It is emphatically not a comedy. His editor at St. Martin’s Press, Elizabeth Beier, recalls surprise when the manuscript landed on her desk. “It’s a pretty rich book,” she says. “He’s a very beautiful, clean, clear, wistful writer. That comes through in both his fiction and nonfiction. He has a very romantic way of looking at things. You can see that in Kiss Me Like a Stranger, in the way he wrote about the relationships he had in his own life.”

My French Whore began as an idea in 1969 while Gene was in Paris filming Start the Revolution Without Me with Donald Sutherland. For a time he tinkered with a screenplay version that he called Hesitation Waltz. Gene liked the idea, “an impossible love affair that never actually happened,” but it needed work. “The idea was good, but not the screenplay,” he says.

Thus stalled on Hesitation, Gene wrote other screenplays. “The next one was Tough Guy, better, still no good. It was a good concept. A B-picture actor who plays this tough guy, he’s really not a gangster, then he gets in trouble with real gangsters in Paris. The idea was okay, the script wasn’t. The studio was right, it didn’t want to do it, but the third one … ”

The third one was Young Frankenstein, a classic scare comedy released in 1974, which became a career moment for Gene, earning him an Oscar nomination for writing (he previously was nominated for Best Supporting Actor in The Producers). Gene credits Mel Brooks, co-screenwriter and director on Young Frankenstein, for much of the script’s success.

“The idea, of course, was very good,” Gene explains. “When Mel started working on it, after I wrote the first draft, he would say: ‘This scene stinks. You’ve got to have a villain. Remember Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein? Yeah, okay, make it.’

“I’d write all day, he’d come in after his dinner, say ‘Yeah, okay’ and move on. ‘Now this next scene, there’s a big hole here … ’

“I’d go away, write all day the next day, show it to him that night. That’s how we did it. If it had been anyone but Mel, I would have had a hard time.”

Wilder’s past has re-emerged with a vengeance of late. There was the smash musical remake of 1968’s The Producers on Broadway, made into a movie last year. Also last year came a remake of the 1971 cult classic Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Wilder was openly disappointed with the latter remake, but it served to remind people what made the original so special. Then two late-1970s features starring and directed by Gene came out on DVD, The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (one of Karen’s favorite Gene films) and The World’s Greatest Lover, both with director’s commentaries.

Also last year, in a widely publicized ranking of the 100 greatest film performances of all time, Premiere magazine listed Gene’s performance in Young Frankenstein in ninth place, just above Robert De Niro in Raging Bull. “It’s a comic performance that borders on the cosmic,” Premiere opined.