After repeated exposure to the recent AT&T TV commercial based around the song “Pure Imagination”, I find myself thinking of Gene Wilder a lot these days.  First of all, what a lovely melody and how readily it evokes a simpler, childlike time (props to its composers Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse) (and apologies for saying props).  But it’s the genuine, unashamedly tender voice of Gene Wilder that delivers it straight home to the heart.   Favorite scenes from Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory immediately come to mind, and it’s not long before I’m reminiscing once again about the many wonderful moments this gifted actor/director/author has given us since the sixties.

Gene Wilder’s early association with Mel Brooks resulted in some of  cinema’s greatest comedic characters, including the timid accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers and the reluctant mad doctor in Young Frankenstein (Wilder’s voice and manner are uncannily revived in the new Broadway musical version courtesy of the remarkably versatile Roger Bart).   Other favorites including  Blazing Saddles and Silver Streak also endeared Wilder to the moviegoer’s funnybone.

His marriage to Gilda Radner in 1984 was sadly short-lived upon Radner’s death to cancer a mere five years later.  He has since founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in LA as well as Gilda’s Club, a support group with branches throughout the USA. Wilder himself was diagnosed with lymphoma years later but has completely recovered after chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.

At 77, he continues to be active in charities and has written a highly personal memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art“, as well as novels and a 2010 collection of stories, “What Is This Thing Called Love?

Today, June 11th, is Gene Wilder’s birthday, so what better day to tip a colorful top hat to the original Willy Wonka, who mixes it with love and makes the world taste good.