Sun, Mar 13, 2005 - Page 19 News List

Gene Wilder stars in 'Kiss Me Like a Stranger'

The actor's autobiography is endearing as it presents Wilder's friendships, loves, projects and struggles with striking candor

By Janet Maslin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Kiss Me Like a Stranger: A Kindly Comic Willing to Tell All
By Gene Wilder
272 Pages
St. Martin's Press

First a word about the title of Gene Wilder's autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: ouch. In the rough-and-tumble world of celebrity memoirs, it's not helpful to trumpet a phrase so redolent of daytime soaps and warmed-over molasses.

Fortunately, this is such a gracious, endearing book that even the stickiness of its name develops a certain gallantry.

As Wilder writes on the closing page, the title came from Gilda Radner, his third wife and one of the many friends, lovers and colleagues about whom he writes with striking candor.

"I had no idea why she said it or what the title meant," he explains. But there is a courtliness to his having resurrected those words no matter what the cost.

There's a sting here too, since Wilder does not intend the title sentimentally; he uses it to convey anger. Why couldn't Radner have been as kind to a husband as she was to people she didn't know? Though this book is true to the nice-guy persona that Wilder has used to such fine comic effect as an actor, it is not without claws. But he writes with an introspection that keeps these opposite sides of his nature reconciled.

Nice guy or not, Wilder has led a tumultuous personal life. And he has sustained a Zelig-like presence in interesting realms of show business.

This book isn't long, but it spans a lot of territory. The former Jerry Silberman (who took his stage name from Eugene Gant, the main character in Look Homeward, Angel, and the playwright Thornton Wilder) came from Milwaukee and studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio. He appeared in a production of Mother Courage starring Anne Bancroft. As fate would have it, he quickly bonded with her boyfriend, Mel Brooks.

Wilder had already been cast in the landmark film Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 when Brooks handed him the role of a lifetime in The Producers. Wilder also became a last-minute addition to the cast of Blazing Saddles. And he hit the Brooks trifecta when they collaborated on Young Frankenstein, writing it together.

They fought furiously but productively over one of Wilder's typically crazy-like-a-fox contributions: The idea that Dr Frankenstein and his monster ought to do a song-and-dance number, Puttin' on the Ritz.

He also played Willy Wonka, a character beloved by children. And he helped create the heyday of the buddy movie in his collaborations (including Silver Streak) with Richard Pryor.

While acknowledging Pryor's talent, Wilder describes Pryor's extreme touchiness about racial issues and includes a dictionary definition of "sullen" to describe him.

Meanwhile -- and it's a big meanwhile -- Wilder accrued the kinds of experiences that will be catnip on the talk show circuit. He underwent what he says was a kind of demonic possession that forced him to pray. He had a job administering electroshock therapy at a psychiatric hospital. He spent enough time being analyzed to include dialogues with his therapist throughout the book.

And he experienced a sexual awakening that he describes with both graphic, intimate detail (he bought his first condom shortly after the death of his mother) and discretion.

When he and Radner made a film together and their affair began, he writes, "with a proper invitation I would occasionally visit her room at night." Having seen two previous marriages end badly, Wilder was naturally wary of Radner's volatility (not to mention the fact that she was married when they met). He describes having been alarmed by her clinginess ("as much as I loved being with her, I wanted to breathe again without having to worry about her") and self-involvement ("I began to resent how much energy she poured into her fears and childish needs").

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