Revelations Gene Wilder: I thought, oh my God, Ms Webb is going to be some old busybody

The time: Summer 1988 The place: New York The man: Gene Wilder, actor and comedian

Emma Daly
Tuesday 17 December 1996 00:02

I never used to believe in fate; I thought of it as a kind of weakness, philosophically, to blame something on fate. You make your own life, and you call it fate. But my perspective changed, radically, in 1988.

I had been offered a film called See No Evil, Hear No Evil; I read the script. I thought it was a brilliant idea - two leading men, one blind, one deaf - but the script was simply rotten. It didn't know what it was talking about as far as the deaf and the blind were concerned, and the jokes were crude, cheap and not funny. So I turned it down. Six months later, my agent sent me a script called See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and I said, Bobby, I just turned this down. I told you, it's a brilliant idea but a rotten script; I don't want to do it. I'd be ashamed to do it.

In the next year, I changed agents, and in the first month of my new relationship, my new agent said, come on Gene, I want you to meet the people at Tristar pictures about a film called See No Evil, Hear No Evil ... And I said, oh Marty, I've turned this script down twice already; it's a great idea and it's just a rotten, hopeless script. He said, I want you to come anyway, just to meet the people. I said, I'll go, but it's not going to lead to anything.

So we went to meet the people at Tristar, who were very cordial; they had a director there, wearing cowboy boots, telling me the way to play comedy is to play it straight, and I said, thank you very much. And finally they asked what I thought of the script, and I said, it's rotten, it pees on the deaf and the blind, all the jokes are crude and to my taste it's not at all funny. There's no character development and I hate it, but it is a brilliant idea. When I walked out, I thought, well that settles that.

The next day, the head of Tristar pictures asked if he could come and see me, and we met for lunch. And he said, we agree with everything you said, and that fellow wasn't signed to direct the film; we don't have to have him. How about doing this picture with Richard Pryor? And I said, I haven't seen Richard in a long time, I don't even know if we'd get along these days, so much has happened in our personal lives since I saw him last. But he asked if I would meet with him, and I said all right.

And the next day, I went to the Tristar office, and Richard came in and they left us alone for about 15 minutes while we sniffed and hugged and talked and I said to Richard, I don't want to be rushed into a film that's just going to end up compromised. I think it could be a good film, but we'd have to start from scratch. I would write it, but I don't want to be pinned down; when it's ready, it's ready.

The people from Tristar came back, and Richard said, Gene and I will do this film, but Gene should write, and when it's ready, it's ready. They looked at me, and I said, I'll write 20 pages, starting over, and if you like it we'll go on; if you don't, we'll part friends and you don't owe me a penny. And they agreed. So, I went to the Braille Institute and did research and wrote the first 20 pages. And they said, this is the film we want to make, so go on writing.

Now I had another problem. I had made a big to-do about being disrespectful to people who were deaf, but I didn't really know how to make it correct. So I asked my secretary to call the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, because I was in Connecticut then, and get me an appointment. She called back and said, you have an appointment with a Ms Webb, she's waiting for you to call.

I thought, oh my God, Ms Webb, this is going to be some old New England busybody who's going to say, you want to make fun of the deaf? And you expect me to help you? And I called, and heard this very pleasant voice and I said, did you get the pages I sent? And she said, yes I did, I thought they were very funny. It needs a lot of work to make it correct, but it is very funny, and I think it would do the hearing-impaired a lot of good because one of them is portrayed as a leading character in a movie.

So we set up an appointment at the New York League; I went on a Wednesday afternoon, I think it was at 2.15, in July or August. I got up to the 18th floor, I asked to see Ms Webb, and out comes this beautiful flowing lavender-and-blue dress, with a little pink mixed in, fitted over a lovely body. And her face was radiant, cheerful, encouraging.

She was on the staff as a speech therapist, and she said she would have me tested, to see what my hearing was, and then she wanted to see how I did trying to read lips. She put a tape in a monitor of this woman's lips saying things and I was supposed to guess what. Well, the woman happened to be Ms Webb, and it went to a tight close-up of just her lips, and part of my brain was thinking, what the hell is she saying; the other part was, my God, look at those beautiful lips.

And I said, how did I do? And she said, fair, and then took me to the beginner lip-reading class - they call it speech-reading - and I sat in. Ms Webb made arrangements for me to visit on a regular basis, so I could talk to the clients and ask really basic questions as an actor: How would you feel if someone said, hey get out of the way you deaf ... or, can't you hear me? All the things we take for granted walking down a street in New York, never considering that maybe the person can't hear.

So I started studying, rewriting, and at the end of my training I handed in my script and we started filming, Richard and I. And Ms Webb asked if I would ever help her if she got grant money to make videos for hearing-impaired people, to inject some humour in, so it would not just be cut-and-dried factual things. I said, sure, sure, not thinking this would be anything that would happen very soon.

The picture came out, it was a great success, and months later, I got a call from Ms Webb. She said, hi, it's Karen Webb, do you remember me? I said, sure, of course, Ms Webb, I remember you. And she said, I got the grant money; would you still help me? And I said, sure, and we met, with a tape-recorder, for about two hours, and I improvised and we thought up some funny sketches I could perform in this video. Then she got a producer, and a studio; we met again, I improvised some more, she had it all typed up.

On the third time, I said, let's meet without the tape recorder.

That was our first official date, in a little Italian restaurant that has 11 tables. I asked Ms Webb to marry me a year later, and we've been married now for five years. We came to London for our honeymoon, we came to London last year for our second honeymoon, and now we have a home here.

And the irony is just too strong for me to accept as irony. I've become a believer in fate, because if I hadn't changed agents, if I hadn't been dragged to meet the heads of Tristar about a script I'd already turned down three times, I wouldn't be married to Ms Webb today. And at that point in my life I didn't think I would ever be married again after Gilda [Radner, his actress wife] died.

And now Ms Webb and I live a quiet life in Connecticut. She did keep working but I got too jealous of the time they had her, so we worked out a lovely compromise: she quit and spends all her time with me. She gardens about three-and-a-half hours a day, and we both paint watercolours, cook together and read other rotten scripts that might turn into something beautiful"n

Gene Wilder appears in `Laughter on the 23rd Floor' at the Queen's Theatre in London until March, and introduces `Arena: Caesar's Writers' on BBC2 at 9pm on Christmas Eve.

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