–image taken from Wikipedia-
Farewell to Jerome Silberman. The man the world would come to know as the comedic actor Gene Wilder died on Monday after a struggle with Alzheimer’s disease over the past three years, at the age of 83.
When I heard the news yesterday, it was like many passings over 2016 – it really yanked the rug out from under me. As John Irving put it in The World According To Garp, “we are all terminal cases.” Look, I know in my heart of hearts that none of us is immortal, that the measurement of years is a finite thing, but a death of that high profile can really rattle me, even now. I felt it when Elvis Presley died, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and the late Gilda Radner (who left Wilder a widower in 1989) – it’s a feeling of “this just doesn’t feel right at all.”
Gene Wilder was a writing and acting genius. The writing, in the form of Young Frankenstein and other films was solid craft, in the case of YF inhabiting the skin of the “modern Prometheus” story with a decidedly off-kilter take. As for the acting…well, look at someone like Alan Alda, who played Hawkeye Pierce to perfection in the TV version of M*A*S*H. He played great roles in The Four Seasons and Same Time Next Year, but all of them, in some way, were built on a similar emotional profile. (This, by the way, is not a knock; if you find you’re really good at something, be good at it.) With Wilder, you had an actor who became Willy Wonka, or the Waco Kid, or Frederick Frankenstein, or Leo Bloom, or that terrified undertaker in Bonnie and Clyde. There’s no confusion as to those characters, the blurring is minimal – sure, his “GOOD DAY, SIR!” from Wonka might emotionally overlap his “I will NOT be ANGRY” from Frankenstein, but no one’s going to ever juggle those roles in their heads.
I suppose that what has thrown me so hard in this case is the revelation of Alzheimer’s, which he had elected not to share with the public, out of a desire to not meet people in public and have them come away with a different, sadder association instead of the memory of these finely drawn characters for which he was so well known. Having interviewed guitarist Glen Campbell before his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was officially announced, I recognized the signs, to the point that the record label that coordinated the interview called me back immediately after the recording, to ask that I remove a particular line that gave it away. (Mind you, I wasn’t in on the news – it was that he said something so “off” in the interview that I recognized what it might mean, a hunch that I hoped would not be true.)
It is a sad and horrible thing to hear and see someone falling apart in front of you, in any fashion, but this may be the most dire. The signs of deterioration aren’t rendered the same way…it’s the feeling that someone may be physically in the room with you, but the personality has begun a slow fade. You find yourself watching someone turn almost into a ghost before your very eyes, which is what makes it so incredibly hard, witnessing that long goodbye. To that person, today you may be a daughter, and tomorrow, you may become an aunt.
Alzheimer’s is a disease that can lay waste, regardless of whether you’re a professor, or a teacher, or a grocery store manager or a record store clerk or an administrator – diet and exercise, as in all things, might help, but it doesn’t pass over the award-winning violinist in favor of someone who left school at 15, or the gone-to-seed football player. It plays no favorites, and Wilder’s passing brings that thought home.
So, tonight, I will go home, play around on the home computer, organize my music, read up on the upcoming election, make BLTs for my family for dinner, and maybe hold them in my heart and arms a little tighter, and remind myself that I need to do that a lot more. I will treasure them NOW, and often, because I don’t want to lose that chance under any circumstances.
To Jerome Silberman, known now only to God: good day, sir. Tell Ms. Radner we said hello. We’ll miss both of you. 🙁
– Todd Berryman
Middays on WIN 104.9
Pops a Mel Brooks Film into the DVD Player, Trying To Smile Away the Pain For a Little While
More info, and donate to the cause, by going to alz.org.