Gene Wilder died yesterday. The outpourings of grief were swift and strong. “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form,” wrote Jim Carrey. “If there’s a heaven, he has a Golden Ticket.”
During his life Wilder described himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” His “religion,” he said in a 2005 interview for the book Stars of David, was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
And yet for those who ever saw him interviewed (here’s a great one from 2013), there was something about him, his gentleness and soft-spokenness, that seemed somehow otherworldly. Like he wasn’t quite from here or he was connected to something bigger. Somehow, even though he didn’t believe in a god, in some strange way his demeanor seemed to offer the promise of one, just around the corner.
Many of us remember his famed performance as Willy Wonka in a similar way, a quiet and strange messiah come to bring people to a better place. “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” he invited Charlie Bucket, Veruka Salt and the rest. Watching the scene, one thinks at first he’s talking about the fantastic candy land in which the characters find themselves, a sort of consumer’s utopia.
But as the film goes on such notions are debunked; it’s not the child who can eat the most who is king here, nor the wealthiest but the one who finds wonder all around him. “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it,” sings Wilder. You can hear the deeper beautiful kingdom he’s calling us to in the quiet longing of his voice, the wide-openness of his eyes.
Though she knew he was an atheist, interviewer Abigail Pogrebin couldn’t help but ask Wilder in 2005 whether his own experience of cancer ever left him wondering how God could let such things happen.
“That ignorant question,” he replied, “and I say ‘ignorant’, not ‘stupid’—never crosses my mind. I would never have dreamed that God would favor you if you did this, and piss on you if you did that....There couldn’t be any God that cruel or dumb or uncompassionate.... The world is not based on fairness. Human beings can rise to fairness, can administer something that makes it fair or just. But that’s not God. When I was being radiated twice a day at Sloan-Kettering, they’d wheel me down there and I’d see these little kids—5, 6 years old—bald from the chemotherapy. I’m supposed to think that if their mothers had prayed to God, asking, ‘Please help my child,’ then they wouldn’t be here? Nonsense.”
Wilder died on Aug. 29 in Stamford, Conn., holding hands with his gathered family while listening to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The clouds are indeed far behind him now. And though he might not have believed in the possibility of heaven himself, still his life makes us wonder with hope what someday might be waiting for us.
Jim McDermott, S.J., is America's Los Angeles correspondent.