The Secret to Great Comedy Is...

To Take It Very, Very Seriously

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From the moment he first appeared on the silver screen in 1967's Bonnie & Clyde, Gene Wilder, who passed away this Sunday at the age of 83, dealt in a proprietary blend of absurdity, grace, and gravitas. "I don't think I'm that funny," Gene Wilder said in a 2013 interview with Robert Osborne. "I think I can be—in the movies."

"Just be real, and it will be funnier."

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But just how did he manage to do that? "If the physical thing you're doing is funny, you don't have to act funny while doing it," he writes of his approach to acting in his 2006 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. "Just be real, and it will be funnier."

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One would need a pretty serious sense of empathy to be consistently "real" when tackling as ludicrous and diverse a batch of roles as Wilder did, and it is precisely that quality which drew his admirers to him so magnetically. He approached each of his roles with the same degree of earnestness, no matter how preposterous—as evidenced especially well by his work with director Mel Brooks on the comedy classics Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.

His passing only brings further proof that it was his depth of empathy that guided him—for, shortly after his death, his family announced that he had chosen to keep his illness private only so as not to worry any of his youngest fans.

In a public statement released by his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, the Wilder family said: "The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn't vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, 'There's Willy Wonka,' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world."

Yes, it sounds almost too sappy to be true, but none of us should be surprised that Wilder even managed to use his own misfortune as another chance to express his seemingly bottomless reserve of compassion. We know now that he lived as he worked, and it was the depth of the connection he felt—to his characters, his colleagues, his fans—that shaped it all.

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