Gene Wilder’s Last Big Interview: Mel Brooks, Willy Wonka & Why He Stopped Acting

In his last major interview, at the 92nd Street Y in 2013, Wilder looked back at his career and explained what made him stop acting.

Gene Wilder lives in our collective memory as his characters from iconic films like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein. But in the years leading up to his death this week, at the age of 83, he was seldom seen in public.

As we now know, this may have been due to a secret diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, which his family said he did not want to make public. But as recently as 2013, Wilder’s memory seemed just as vibrant as ever, even if his energy was somewhat diminished.

Wilder gave his last major public interview to Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne on June 12, 2013, one day after his 80th birthday. During their wide-ranging conversation, Wilder touched on many of his most beloved projects, his working relationships with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, and what made him stop acting 10 years earlier at the age of 70.

Below are a few highlights, along with video of the discussion.

On the biggest misconception about him:

“What a comic, what a funny guy, all that stuff! And I’m not. I’m really not. Except in a comedy in films. But I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but nothing special. But when people see me in a movie and it’s funny, then they stop and say things to me about ‘how funny you were.’ But I don’t think I’m that funny. I think I can be in the movies.”

On why he hadn’t made a movie in over a decade:

“The swearing and the loud, the bombing, and after a while, they were dirty. And once in a while, there was a nice, good film, but not very many...If something comes along that’s really good and I think I would be good for it, I’d be happy to do it. But not too many came along. I mean, they came along for the first, I don’t know, 15, 18 films, but I didn’t do that many. But then I didn’t want to do the kind of junk I was seeing. I didn’t want to do 3-D, for instance. I didn’t want to do ones where it’s just bombing and loud and swearing. So much swearing going on. If someone says ‘Ah, go fuck yourself,’ well, if it came from a meaningful place, I’d understand it. But if you go to some movies, can’t they just stop and talk, just talk, instead of swearing? That put me off a lot.”

On what he brought to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory:

“I thought the script was very good, but something was missing. I wanted to come out with a cane, come down slowly, have it stick into one of the bricks, get up, fall over, roll around, and they all laugh and applaud. The director asked, ‘What do you want to do that for?’ I said because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”