There is a moment among the extras on the Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory DVD in which Gene Wilder relates a story of being in the grocery store. A woman approaches him with her young son and asks, “Can I tell him who you are?” Wilder agrees, with the caveat of “Not too loudly, please.” Of course the boy is charmed, and the actor may have given him a hug. The woman then says, “Gee, what a wonderful legacy.”
I have no idea what motivates actors. Some perhaps are looking for the standard Rich & Famous contract, while others simply appreciate the opportunity to breathe life into a character, and be the conduit for taking that character from the printed page to the stage or screen.
And perhaps some actors are pursued by a single role that follows them for the rest of their career. And because I am uninformed as to what motivates actors, I have to ask, “Is that so terrible?”
I can appreciate a reluctance to being pigeon-holed, and wanting to play more than a single role for so many years. To some actors, any given role is simply a job. The fulfilled their contract, the project ended, and they moved on.
On an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Harrison Ford was flummoxed as to Indiana Jones’ given name. I’m sure many fans were puzzled that Ford didn’t know it, but from his perspective, Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade was a project he’d spent a few months working on several years before. He’d moved on to his next film (ironically, Regarding Henry, if I remember correctly).
What some audiences may forget is that the role is a job, a character that said actor was hired to portray. They are NOT that character. Perhaps they share certain traits, but its mostly make-believe.
What actors may misunderstand is that when you lend your face and physical being to a character, it’s inevitable that actor and character become intertwined. Whether an actor is known for playing Hamlet, or Sherlock Holmes, or Batman, or some other character, is it not a testament to their craft that they become identified with that character.
I suppose every actor must come to terms with that identification. Gene Wilder had many roles in his career, some more famous than others. Many will agree that Willy Wonka stands head and shoulders above the others. It is a wonderful legacy for an actor to leave, a role that means so much to so many.
DragonCon is this weekend, and one facet of the four-day event is the Walk of Fame. Sometimes, major names such as William Shatner or Patrick Stewart join us. Often, the guest list include actors whose salad days are well behind them and they are now in the business of selling autographed photos.
One actor I met stated off the record he was there to milk every dime he could from the fans. I find that a rather jaded attitude to take, because it’s the fans who keep that cancelled TV show or 20-year-old movie alive, and introduce it to potential new fans. It’s easy to be disappointed by a career trajectory, or to be forever associated with a role that may have been taken simply because two others failed to materialize.
But that’s an actor’s life. It’s a common clause in the standard Rich & Famous contract. Gene Wilder seemed to understand that, and seemed to be at peace with it. Others, such as William Shatner or Adam West, may have had a greater struggle to reconcile with the roles for which they are best known. That’s okay.
I am saddened at the loss of Gene Wilder. His role as Willy Wonka is iconic, and a treasure for the ages, that has impacted generations. As Willy Wonka said, “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”