Actor-turned-author Gene Wilder has come along way since ‘Wonka’

Robert Bumsted

Even though the remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory'' came out 2 1/2 years ago, actor Gene Wilder still has not seen Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Willy Wonka, a role that Wilder made famous in the original 1971 film.

"I like Johnny Depp, but when I saw the (movie trailer), I just said, ‘No no no no, don’t go that way, don’t develop a character like that,’'' said Wilder, 74, who lives in Stamford, Conn.

Instead, he spent the past two years writing novels – a departure from his former career of actor, director and screenwriter. Besides Willy Wonka, Wilder is known for his roles in "The Producers,'' "Young Frankenstein'' and "Blazing Saddles.''

In the past Wilder said he was asked to write books, but said he didn’t believe he was ready. This all changed during a trip to California that turned into a two-month stay after his mother-in-law fell ill.

"I thought I would go crazy if I didn’t do something, so I started writing down all the ironies in my life that I thought were terrible things but lead to wonderful things ... and I said, ‘Here’s the structure for a book,’'' said Wilder.

This turned out to be the foundation of his first book, an autobiography titled "Kiss me Like a Stranger,'' in 2005. Since then, Wilder has released two novels: "My French Whore'' in 2007, and "The Woman Who Wouldn’t,'' which hit bookstores in March.

Both novels, as their titles suggest, are deep and heartwarming love stories, tinged with the silly comedy that Wilder’s fans have come to expect.

 The latest novel is a love story about a womanizing American violinist who has a nervous breakdown on stage and gets sent to a German rehabilitation facility where he ends up meeting the love of his life.

 "Well, my wife looked over my shoulder when I’d written four pages, and she said, ‘Well where did that come from?’'' Wilder said about the early stages of writing "The Woman Who Wouldn’t.''

 Like his earlier efforts, Wilder draws from his past works, experiences and affections.

 "My favorite author was Anton Chekov, and I had read a story of his called ‘The Lady with the Pet Dog,’ about a womanizer who ends up so attached to the woman who he’s been trying to make account with. Well my story is not the same, except that I did choose to make the man a womanizer who’s in for a lot of shocks later on when he meets the Belgian lady,'' Wilder said.

 Working in a psychiatric hospital while in the U.S. Army, 1956-1958, also impacted his writing, Wilder said.

"I think the fact that I was working in a neuropsychiatric hospital for two years when I was in the peacetime Army amid all these young men who had psychotic breakdowns – I think that probably gave me the idea of having him go nuts when he was playing Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto in D major, and then has a nervous breakdown. I learned a lot of things in that ward,'' Wilder said.

 His first novel, "My French Whore,'' is a story of an American actor who enlists in the Army during World War I, goes AWOL and passes himself off as a high-ranking German official. As such, he is treated like royalty and is given a French woman whom he falls deeply in love with.

 Wilder was in Boston recently for a book signing at the Borders in the Back Bay to promote "The Woman Who Wouldn’t.'' Armed with cameras and copies of Wilder’s books and movies, hundreds of fans lined up to meet Wilder.

Beth Fuller of Boston brought her two sons and stood in line for nearly an hour before meeting Wilder. Fuller calls herself a longtime fan and her children have grown up loving Wilder’s movies.

"I’ve always been a fan of Gene Wilder. I saw ‘Willy Wonka’ when I was 9 years old, and now I have a 9-year-old son,'' said Fuller as she stood waiting, clutching her family’s copy of the movie.

Even as the lines dwindled at the store, Wilder still managed to give a smile, wink and the occasional photograph to fans. Wilder said that despite the cramped fingers from signing books, the tour is going well and he’s had the opportunity to meet some interesting people.

At a signing in Toronto, Wilder said he remembered meeting an elderly man who said he had known Wilder’s mother. "I promise you, sir, you didn’t,'' he replied. The man insisted, and said, "Do you remember when you were a little boy in Lac LaBelle in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, and you almost drowned? I was the one who pulled you out!'' Realizing that the man had, in fact, known his mother, Wilder said he apologized and thanked the man for saving his life.

Though the book promotional tours take a lot of time, Wilder said, he will still write another book, although he’s not sure what it will be about.

 "I always wait for it to come to me, then it’s like a flower that just bursts open, it blooms. Then I want to write it quickly,'' he said.

In the meantime, perhaps Wilder will finally watch Depp in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.''