It was just that moment of the evening when you need the lights but you don't quite want to turn them on. There were two big old overstuffed wing chairs facing each other in front of the fireplace, and in one of them Gene Wilder had thrown his leg over the chair's arm and was talking softly and slowly...
"This was in Milwaukee when I was eleven years old. I went to see my sister give a dramatic reading. She'd been taking drama lessons. I walked into the hall, and there was a little stage at the other end, and maybe 150 people, parents mostly, or children like my self.
"The lights went down slowly, very slowly. Then it was dark. Spotlights hit the stage, and there was my sister, standing there in the middle of the stage, and...everyone was listening to her. Everyone."
A smile illuminated Wilder's face.
"At that moment I thought, that must be the most beautiful thing in the world, to be able to arrange things so that people have to listen to you."
He smiled again.
"So," he said, "that's why I became an actor. Well, anyway, my analyst says it's better than running naked in Central Park..."
You're in analysis?
"For seven and a half years, yeah."
You certainly looked satisfactorily neurotic in "The Producers" (1968), all right.
"Yes. I suppose I did. I had a lot of hysteria going for me at the time. A lot of people remember that scene where I'm afraid that Zero Mostel is going to jump on me. Well, having a vivid imagination, I let myself respond fully to the thought of Zero Mostel pouncing on me and wow, what a thought that is. I was a little more neurotic in those days. The analysis hasn't changed what I had going for me, but it's allowed other things to develop."
I've always wondered about some of the little things in "The Producers," I said. Like when Mostel sits down heavily on the floor next to the safe filled with bills, and he reaches out, and pats them and says, "Hello, boys." To me, that's one of the funniest lines in movies. But how did Mel Brooks come up with it?
"That scene, and a lot of the bits in the movie, he simply made up on the spot," Wilder said. "He told Mostel to sit down and pat the dollar bills. Mostel asked him, "What should I say?' Brooks said, 'Say? I dunno. Say hi. No...say, Hello boys!'
"There's no way to account for why that line is funny. It's just funny. Mel Brooks is one of the few authentic geniuses working in comedy in America today."
Wilder has himself been largely identified with comedy, or comic acting. He made his first unforgettable impression as the undertaker who was taken for a ride by Bonnie and Clyde. ("I worked two days in Texas and two days in Hollywood on 'Bonnie and Clyde,' and that was it. I had no idea how it was going to turn out. And when I saw it, I was so upset, or fascinated, or something, by the sight of myself on the screen that I could hardly pay attention to the rest of the movie.")
Then came "The Producers," which has made him famous and will likely make him immortal (at least as long as movie comedy lives, and when it dies what's immortality worth anyway?) After that came "Start the Revolution Without Me" with Donald Sutherland. Wilder thinks of it as a great movie that didn't quite come off: "It had three great scenes, and two or three very good scenes, and the people who love the movie love those scenes. Then it had two good scenes, and six or seven scenes that just didn't work."
He went to Dublin to star in "Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx," which was a hauntingly charming story about a municipal manure collector who fell in love with an American girl, a kind of F. Scott Fitzgerald heroine, who was studying at Trinity.
"Quackser Fortune" gave him a an opportunity to try a kind of screen acting style he's fascinated by, and which he calls somewhat less than clearly - "lying."
"Here's what I mean by lying," he said. "We all grew up on movies with scenes where the actor is lying, and you know he's lying, but he wants to make sure you know it's a lie, and so he overacts and all but winks at you, and everybody in the world except for the girl he's talking to knows he's lying.
"I want to do the opposite. To really lie, and fool the audience. I had a scene in 'Quackser Fortune' where I tell the girl that it's okay if she leaves, that I'm not really hurt and I won't miss her. The way this scene used to be played, the actor would do everything to let the audience know his heart is really breaking. But no, I really lied. So what I was saying sounded convincing. And then, but only at the end, do you find out I was lying."
Wilder uses something of the same technique in his new film, "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,'' which opens in neighborhood theaters next Friday.
"It's based on Roald Dahl's classic kids' book, 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,'" Wilder said, "and it's about this fabulous candy manufacturer named Willie Wonka, played by me, who puts five golden tickets in five chocolate bars so that five children from five corners of the earth can go on a tour of the famous Mr. Wonka's factory. At least, that's what they think is going to happen."
And that's where the "lying" comes in?
"Right. What good is a character who's always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?"