Gene Wilder is doing a different kind of role in "Funny About Love." Different, that is, for him. In most of his films, he has played the clown. Romance, for Wilder, is usually out of reach for him on the screen, so here he is, 23 years in the movie business, playing a leading character, a cartoonist who woos and weds a caterer, and when they divorce, spends all his time trying to win her back.
"If you'd told me, 23 years ago, that I would be playing romantileads on the screen 23 years later, I would never have believed you," he said. "You know, I didn't work for a while and, being realistic about it, I told myself that I had had a good run and that it was very possible that I wouldn't be asked to do any more leads. Parts, maybe, but no leads. Then, to my amazement, I was asked to do this role."
Wilder's wife, Gilda Radner, died last year of ovarian cancer. Wilder thinks the resurgence in his career is due to her. "I think it was Gilda, more than anything else," he said. "I seem to be more in demand than I was. I also think it is the cassettes. People see me in 'Blazing Saddles,' and that helps. I was actually doing two films at once. I actually overlapped. I hadn't done that for years."
When he mentions Radner's name, he seems almost wistful, subdued. "Gilda taught me that death can shut you off and make you hide, or it can open you up," he said. "Every moment that you don't take advantage of the beauty around you is a waste of my life and hers. It would border on sacrilege if I didn't remember that the rest of my life."
He got the role in "Funny About Love" when his agent asked him to read the script. "When I read it, I said, I can do that, but how did he know?"
"He" was Leonard Nimoy, who directed the film, one in which a newly married couple tries desperately to have a child. It was Nimoy who had sent the script.
The in vitro process is rather detailed in the film, and that was Wilder's doing. "There wasn't enough of that in the film," he said. "Gilda and I couldn't have children, and we went through the in vitro process. It was murder, and I wanted the film to show all that."
He also decided to do the movie because he wanted to take another road, another fork in his career. "It was a conscious decision to do so," he said. "I wanted to do something closer to real life, not something mundane or naturalistic but something different. I usually play characters who are two-dimensional and allow me to play notes. I wanted to do something that was three-dimensional and would allow me to play chords."
Wilder has done three films with Richard Pryor. They are planning to do a fourth. You might almost say they are a movie team. Their first film was "Silver Streak." It was followed by "Stir Crazy," and their last, released last year, was "See No Evil, Hear No Evil."
The third didn't do as well as the first two, but it did well enough.
"Sure," said Wilder. "If it hadn't, they wouldn't be asking us to do a fourth. Peter Bogdanovich will direct. I'll be playing a pathological liar who is released from an asylum. It's very funny. It's also romantic. It's different. It is Richard and I but on different paths. We haven't played these characters before."
Wilder's on-screen image is that of someone who borders on crazy. Is he that way off the screen?
"No, I am not," he said. He doesn't think of himself as a comedian. "I could never be a comic," he said. "My goal is to be funny in front of the camera but not in front of an audience. I have to create a character, one I hope will be a human being, one I hope will be funny."
But you are thought of as something of a clown.
"I didn't say I wasn't a clown," he said. "I just said that I'm not a vTC
comic. I am an actor with a foot in the door of comedy. I went to school to learn to act, not to be a comic."
The story of how Wilder began his career is something of a legend. When he was a child, his mother became ill. The doctor told Wilder that the best thing for his mother was laughter, so he tried his best to make her laugh. He succeeded, and a career was born.
"Well," he said, "it wasn't only that. My sister took part in a dance recital when I was 11. I thought, I can do that, and I went to a drama coach. She told me to come back when I was 13. I did, and that was how it all began."
"Funny About Love" opens here tomorrow. Christine Lahti co-stars with Wilder.