Gene Wilder and The Appeal of Seeing Your Heroes Again

Gene Wilder Willy Wonka

Steven Spielberg wants Gene Wilder to come out of retirement for one of his new movies. Bill Murray is going to be in Ghostbusters, but not as a Ghostbuster. Dozens of television shows and movies are getting a sixteenth minute of fame via Netflix and other network resurrections.

One of the biggest things confronting fans in the Era of Nostalgia Mining is the question of how excited or wary to be at the prospect of seeing the people and properties we love back in the spotlight. It’s the invisible postscript on every news story announcing a reboot and reunion. The unspoken question that nips at the heels of every decades-later sequel and cameo appearance.

Will Murray’s appearance in a Ghostbusters reboot lend it credibility or be a distracting (albeit delightful) element that removes us from the fiction of the story? Do we even want to see him next to a Ghostbusting uniform without wearing one? Is his presence necessary or is it an exploitation of his stamp of approval? Will it be too meta for its own good?

These are questions that will only be answered when the film comes out, by each individual fan who sees it. But the questions exist, regardless of how many years the default setting for fandom has been to clamor for the familiar until it turns out to be lamer in its new form, only to clamor for the next thing we recognize.

The last movie Wilder appeared in was 1991’s Another You, the comedic capstone to his career and to his frequent collaborations with Richard Pryor (who never had a starring role again either). The film was a flop both critically and commercially. Wilder went to television and found only mixed success there, too, and he’s been out of the game in earnest since the 1990s.

Since Spielberg is in different stages of production on The BFG (post-) and Ready Player One (pre-), and since they both have connections to Wilder, the prevailing theory is that he wants Wilder for one of those two movies. The first is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book, which means Wilder would be returning to filmmaking and to Dahl if he took the job. As for Ready Player One, the mysterious genius who sets in motion an easter-egg hunt through an internet-connected virtual universe in order to give away his untold fortune is the blisteringly obvious lovechild of Willy Wonka and Steve Jobs. Another Chocolate Factory connection. For those drunk on nostalgia, both of these potential roles are perfect with a capital OMG.

Yet the perfect role for him in Ready Player One is also terrible, an unabashed appeal to microwaved nostalgia that could only ever be a shadow of the role that very well be the one that most defines his legacy. (Yes, even though Blazing Saddles is the funniest movie ever made.)

Or maybe he’d be safe in the hands of Spielberg, collaborating on a warm, worthy goodbye that echoes his past but remained its own character. Something that would make us fully forget his forgettable final film. You can see the problem ‐ the equal appeal of getting to see (or hear) Wilder again and of finding comfort in already having said goodbye.

Columbia Pictures

Columbia Pictures

Every film is a risk, but it’s maybe doubly so when you have a legacy to consider. We as fans get no real say in the matter, but we’re still affected by how these portrayals alter our long-cemented views. Like with Sean Connery calling it quits after the heinous disaster of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s impossible to know whether he should give it one last go to regain the old magic or leave it as the last asterisk on his record. It might not really matter (he’ll be remembered more for Zardoz anyway), but we all have a natural aversion to going out at the bottom.

Wilder lending his voice to a role in The BFG would be fantastic, a small twinkle of fairy dust on a project that already sounds like new Amblin riffing on old Amblin. At the same time, I can’t shake the tiny sliver of worry when it comes to imagining a titan saddling up again. Maybe it stems from the same place as the adage about never meeting your heroes, or maybe it’s because I watched Pryor in Another You after MS had knocked so much of the wind out of his sails, or maybe it’s because three Expendables films exist, or maybe there’s something simply appealing about geniuses with immortal names staying with the sunset after riding off into it.

A lot of beloved things and people from our pasts are reemerging. They have been for some time, and it’s difficult to separate out why we respond to one with groaning eye rolls and to another with paroxysms of pure joy. I know a ton of people responded to the news of Murray making a cameo in Ghostbusters with shrieks of excitement, but I’m having trouble seeing it as something other than hackish, specifically because he won’t be himself. There’s the ephemeral issue of a new generation asking, “Who’s that old guy?” but as a fan, I suppose I’m really (stupidly) concerned about Murray being anything other than Peter Venkman in the Ghostbusters universe. It seems simultaneously like a passing of the baton and like an erasure.

But, really, isn’t that what all passed batons boil down to? One group stops running, the other starts. Every time we see something or someone on the chopping block for a reboot or remake or cameo role in the universe he helped create, there’s a fear that something will be lost from the original. Maybe it’s just a recognition that time is passing it by. That’s it’s, in at least a very small way, being replaced.

In 2013, Wilder ‐ then 80 years old ‐ said that he would only return to acting if the right project came along.

I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, ‘Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.’ But I don’t get anything like that.

So let’s close by eschewing pessimism. Maybe Spielberg is the right man to draw him back into acting, and maybe they’ll make something wonderful together. I sure hope so. It would be amazing to get another final glimpse of pure imagination.