There’s Something About Wilder

Gene WilderGuest blogger Dave LaBato writes:

Gene Wilder is the funniest deaf man I’ve had the pleasure of watching on screen. Of course, Wilder himself is not a deaf person, but he played one in See No Evil, Hear No Evil, a 1989 film that may be a forgettable comedy to most people, but is pretty special to me. As a kid with a serious hearing loss, I thought there was nothing funnier than Wilder inaccurately reading lips.

Cop: Yes or no, was or wasn’t there a woman?
Dave (Wilder): My god, are you serious?
Cop: Yes, I’m goddamned serious!
Dave: Fuzzy Wuzzy was a woman?!

Wilder’s delivery was pitch perfect. His character, Dave Lyons, is a quiet, timid, deaf man thrown into a chaotic life of crime with his new buddy, Wally, played by Richard Pryor. Of course, Wally is blind (“What do you mean I’m not white? Does Dad know?!”). The chemistry between Wilder and Pryor was unmistakable comic gold, as previously evidenced in Silver Streak and Stir Crazy several years earlier. Most people consider those films to be the crowning achievements for this pair of comedians, but for me, See No Evil, Hear No Evil hits much closer to home.

Cop: And who are you, sir?
Dave: I’m fine, thank you.

Credit Gene Wilder for doing his homework. He knew how to play a deaf man because he was trained at the same place where I was taught how to function as a hearing-impaired individual in a world filled with noise. Not long after I was born, it was discovered that I had a severe-to-profound hearing loss. A childhood with intense speech and hearing therapy would follow at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing (now called the Center for Hearing and Communication). I was 11 years old when I found out Wilder was coming to the League to study for his role in the new movie, and I was so desperate to meet him. Every time I walked into the waiting area, I would look for him. Instead of finding the curly-haired, raspy-voiced actor, I would see his framed mug on the wall, a photo he shared with an adorable deaf tyke. But I wanted to be that adorable deaf tyke, dammit.  I knew him as Willy Wonka at the time, which was huge for a kid my age. Later in life, I would discover him in Young Frankenstein, The Producers, Blazing Saddles, et. al., and further appreciate this man’s comic genius. When the movie was finally released, I begged my mom to take me to see it. At the precocious age of 12, she was hesitant to take me to an R-rated movie. Filled with too many curse words, apparently.

Dave: You swear an awful lot.
Wally: You’re f**kin’-A right!

What difference would it make anyway? It’s not like I could hear much of the dialogue, right? What I just wanted to see was Wilder on screen, playing a man who had the same problem that I did. It’s not easy to communicate with someone who doesn’t know you have a hearing problem.

Wally: He reads lips. You’re talking too fast.
Cop: [to Dave, talking slowly] Was there… a wom-an… pres-ent?
Dave: [to cop, talking slowly] Yes. There was… a wom-an… pres-ent.
Cop: Why is he talking like that?
Wally: [to cop, talking slowly] Because ….he’s ….deaf… not stup-id.

Granted, I had never met Wilder when I was kid but still I felt an intense, personal connection with him, something I never felt towards a movie star. I knew I was a lover of films at that age, having seen (and fallen for) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies, and Back to the Future around that time, but there was something about Wilder that made me feel closer to him. When I finally did see the movie, I just loved it. I ate up Gene Wilder’s presence and the movie as a whole just slayed me. One guy can’t see, the other guy can’t hear, and together they witness a murder. Soon they are caught up in a mess involving Kevin Spacey (!) as an evil henchman, a sexy vixen (“I threatened to shoot her with my erection!”), a blind criminal and a noisy, dirty, smelly city.

Dave: I’ll tell you how I feel in a minute or two. But right now…. I’m a little overwhelmed by the STINK of the seven tons of garbage you just drove us into!
Wally: Is THAT what that is? I thought you let one go! I didn’t want to say anything!
Dave: Thank you, Wally. That’s very kind of you!

I consider myself to be a fantastic lip reader but of course there will be times when I am way off base (“Did she say ship, or shit?”). Wilder’s scenes in this movie made it OK for me to laugh at my disability. It is what it is. I have to laugh about it. So what if I can’t hear everything? So what if I don’t pick up the entire sentence? It can certainly make for some very amusing conversations when I’m misinterpreting some wordplay. I’ve had my own fuzzy-wuzzy-was-a-woman moments, thank you very much.

Wilder stayed connected to the League long after he did his research there for See No Evil, Hear No Evil, contributing regularly and making appearances for deaf awareness. Of course, he had another reason for sticking around. The therapist at the League who taught him how to play a deaf man for the movie soon became his wife.

I finally did get to meet Gene Wilder several years later. I was at a League function and Wilder was given a special award for his contributions to the organization. A nice, warm man. I shook his hand, showered him with admiration and respect (which he had undoubtedly heard from countless fans over the years) and he gracefully acknowledged my affection. I couldn’t believe it. I finally met the actor who made it OK for me to be hard of hearing. When I was a kid, I was a movie lover looking for acceptance, and Gene Wilder, a bona fide movie icon, was the one who gave it to me.

Dave LaBato is a movie and TV fanatic, and he had no idea what to do with himself. So, he created Flickers and a new creative outlet was born! Alongside likeminded lovers of the flickering image in the blogosphere, Dave and his buddy Pete write endlessly about their passions for great films and good TV.

(Editor’s note: MovieFanFare originally ran this article in 2011. We have reposted it to celebrate the life and legacy of Gene Wilder, who passed away at the age of 83 earlier this week).