Gene Wilder (left) and Harrison Ford as a Polish rabbi and an American bank robber in "The Frisco Kid," in which the odd couple travels west to San Francisco together.
Gene Wilder (left) and Harrison Ford as a Polish rabbi and an American bank robber in "The Frisco Kid," in which the odd couple travels west to San Francisco together.

‘Remembering Gene Wilder’ at S.F. Jewish Film Festival — and how he made my dad laugh

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Just days before my father died, I put a laptop on his hospital tray and pressed play on “Blazing Saddles,” one of Dad’s all-time favorite films. “It absolutely fractures me,” he used to say of Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western satire, especially the scene where Mongo punches a horse, knocking it out. That was Dad’s kind of humor — irreverent and ridiculous, the audaciousness of Brooks meets the physicality of Charlie Chaplin. Preferably with a few Yiddish insults or bawdy images tossed in. And ideally both.

A laugh from Irv Katz, the writer's dad
A laugh from Irv Katz, the writer’s dad

Two years earlier, Dad had been a practicing physician who tackled 12-mile weekend bike rides despite the progression of his Parkinson’s disease. Then, on a warm November afternoon in 2016, the illness caused his legs to stiffen as he watered a pot of flowers on the back patio, and he fell head first onto the concrete. The resulting brain bleed jumbled his mind, sped his physical decline and forced him to retire.

The avuncular patriarch of our extended family, Dad suffered abundant losses following his traumatic brain injury, but humor wasn’t one of them. Even through repeated emergency hospitalizations, he’d still tell classic “dad jokes.” (“Hey,” I’d greet him. “Hay is for horses,” he’d reply.) Dad always believed humor equaled survival. So, I recently learned, did Gene Wilder, one of the actors in “Blazing Saddles” who made Dad laugh for the very last time.

I gleaned plenty about Wilder, as both person and performer, from the lively and loving new documentary “Remembering Gene Wilder,” which will open the 43rd San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on July 20 after making its world premiere in Los Angeles in May. Fittingly, it brings the late Wilder back to San Francisco, the target destination of his 1979 comedy “The Frisco Kid,” in which he plays an innocent Polish rabbi traveling through the Wild West to deliver a Torah.

One revelation from the doc: When Wilder was 8, his mom suffered her first heart attack. As she prepared to return home from the hospital, her doctor quietly gave the young boy a clear directive. “Don’t ever argue with your mother, you might kill her,” he whispered in Wilder’s ear. “Try to make her laugh.” A heavy burden for a kid, to be sure, but words that would define the course of Wilder’s prolific career.

“If he hadn’t said those two sentences…” the celebrated actor, comedian, writer and filmmaker said in a 2005 BBC interview, going on to joke that he might have become a used car salesman. Wilder’s hilariously expressive face and rebellious curly hair might have ended up gracing screens regardless, but there’s no question the high stakes of his mom’s weak heart drove Wilder’s early comedy just as much as his admiration for Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Sid Caesar.

“I did Jewish accents and German accents, and I did make my mother laugh,” Wilder shares through audio previously recorded for “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art,” his 2006 autobiography. “Every once in a while, if I was a little too successful, she’d run into the bathroom squealing, ‘Oh Jerry, now look what you’ve made me do.’”

Through such voice-overs, Wilder, who died at age 83 in 2016, a few months before Dad’s brain injury, helps tell his own story of going from Jerome Silberman of Milwaukee to Gene Wilder of Hollywood, star of some of my father’s go-to films. Wilder was a “combination of innocence and danger,” says actor Eric McCormack, co-star of the sitcom “Will & Grace,” which featured Wilder as a lawyer in two episodes in season 5 (a role that won him a 2003 Emmy as outstanding guest actor in a comedy series).  “You didn’t know what Gene Wilder was going to do.”

Ron Frank and Julie Nimoy. (Photo/Courtesy Ron Frank)
“Remembering Gene Wilder” producers David Knight and Julie Nimoy (Photo/Courtesy David Knight)

“Remembering Gene Wilder” was produced by husband-and-wife team David Knight and Julie Nimoy, daughter of Leonard Nimoy, the Jewish Star Trek legend who counted Wilder among his friends. Other pals and colleagues offer reflections: Mel Brooks, Alan Alda, Carol Kane, Henry Connick Jr., Dick Cavett and Peter Ostrum, who played young Charlie opposite Wilder’s unhinged Willy in “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” in 1971.

The documentary has its hagiographic moments, but it does a superb job filling in the contours of Wilder’s eccentric comic genius.

RELATED: SFJFF 2023 lineup announced: Gene Wilder, Bella Abzug, ‘Prince of Egypt’

The tribute also touches on his years as husband to fellow comic great Gilda Radner, and later to Karen Wilder, who emotionally recounts her spouse’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease. Watching footage of Wilder shakily but joyfully dance down the aisle at his nephew’s wedding reminded me of Dad’s own dogged determination in the face of a devastating neurodegenerative illness.

“He had a unique ability to find humor in anything,” says Kane, who starred in Wilder’s 1977 movie “The World’s Greatest Lover.”

So did Dad, who’d even joke about his Parkinson’s: “Let’s shake on it,” he’d say of his hand tremors. Dad looked a lot like another “Blazing Saddles” star, Harvey Korman, and was known as much for the devilish smirk that preceded his highly inappropriate jokes as the life-altering care he gave patients over the course of a decades-long career as a urologist. (Mel Brooks makes a urine joke in the Wilder documentary that would have had Dad peeing his pants.)

Following his fall, Dad often couldn’t remember conversations from five minutes earlier, and sometimes when we sat side by side in the living room watching TV, he’d ask when Leslie was coming to visit. “I’m right here, Dad,” I’d say.

But I like to believe that just before my pops died in 2018, he saw Wilder’s Waco Kid with perfect clarity. As Dad prepared to depart from this mortal coil, I hope watching “Blazing Saddles” one final time reminded him what really mattered in life: a silly joke.

“Remembering Gene Wilder” (90 minutes) 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 20 at Castro Theatre, 429 Castro St., S.F. Director Ron Frank, Wilder’s widow, Karen, and producers David Knight and Julie Nimoy are expected to attend.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.