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Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art

Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art

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by Gene Wilder

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In this personal book from the star of many beloved and classic film comedies — from The Producers to Young Frankenstein, Blazing saddles to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — Gene Wilder writes about a side of his life the public hasn't seen on the screen. Kiss Me Like a Stranger is not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word, and it's


In this personal book from the star of many beloved and classic film comedies — from The Producers to Young Frankenstein, Blazing saddles to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — Gene Wilder writes about a side of his life the public hasn't seen on the screen. Kiss Me Like a Stranger is not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word, and it's certainly not another celebrity "tell-all." Instead, Wilder has chosen to write about resonant moments in his life, events that led him to an understanding of the art of acting, and — more important — to an understanding of how to give love to and receive love from a woman.

Wilder writes compellingly about the creative process on stage and screen, and divulges moments from life on the sets of some of the most iconic movies of our time.

In this book, he talks about everything from his experiences in psychoanalysis to why he got into acting and later comedy (his first goal was to be a Shakespearean actor), and how a Midwestern childhood with a sick mother changed him. Wilder explains why he became an actor and writer, and about the funny, wonderful movies he made with Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Harrison Ford, among many others. He candidly reveals his failures in love, and writes about the overwhelming experience of marrying comedienne Gilda Radner, as well as what finally had to happen for him to make a true and lasting commitment to another woman.

A thoughtful, revealing, and winsome book about life, love, and the creative process, Kiss Me Like A Stranger is one actor's life in his own words.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Pure Gene Wilder! Uproarishly funny and at times very moving. It made me want to go out and see every Gene Wilder movie again." — Mel Brooks

"I always knew Gene Wilder was a remarkable person, but I didn't know how remarkable until I read this brave, riveting book." — Charles Grodin

"Gene Wilder is not just a uniquely talented and lovable performer, he's a gifted memoirist with a great story to tell and a writerly commitment to emotional truth. The real delight lies in the prose — tight, funny, fast as the breeze — and insights about accident and fate that lodge in your mind long after the smile has left your lips." — Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author of Three Daughters

"A book to cherish. Here is the real Gene...irrepressibly funny, wise, warmhearted, and honest. In sharing with us the most intimate details of his extraordinary life on screen and off, Gene shows all if us how to embrace the unexpected, pursue our passion, and seize joy every day. Give this book to someone you want to kiss." — Pat Collins, film critic

Publishers Weekly
The man who created some of the funniest moments in film history talks about acting, adultery, neuroses and death in this intimate, unusual memoir. Wilder began acting as a teenager at summer camp and eventually earned some acclaim on Broadway but not much money-he says he was still collecting unemployment checks when he began shooting his breakout film role in Mel Brooks's original film version of The Producers (1968). The movie flopped commercially, but Wilder's comedic chops were established. A string of successes followed: Blazing Saddles; Young Frankenstein; Willy Wonka; Stir Crazy. Off camera, things were more complicated. After two troubled marriages, Wilder married Saturday Night Live's Gilda Radner-a brilliant, erratic woman who battled bulimia and wild mood swings. Wilder is unusually frank in documenting both Radner's faults and her long struggle with cancer. Honesty is a prevailing quality of this book, as Wilder freely discusses topics ranging from his own neuroses to the drug-fueled misbehavior of his great comedic partner, Richard Pryor. He also doesn't avoid telling the details of his own bout with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Wilder's fans may be disappointed to find relatively scant coverage of some of his triumphs, but Wilder clearly isn't interested in writing a conventional Hollywood memoir. His book candidly explores his own faults and feelings, as well as those of the people he's loved and lost. Photos. Agent, David Sarnoff. (Mar. 14) Forecast: Wilder's five-city tour will help market the book to fans, and a timely (if minor) hook is his voice role in the forthcoming comedy Instant Karma. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Twice nominated for Academy Awards in acting and screenwriting, Wilder is a comedic master whose performances in Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and The Producers continue to inspire younger actors. And as someone who has worked with Mel Brooks, he can kibbitz with the best of them. In his memoir, he focuses on his work as an artist and his interpersonal relationships, namely four marriages, the most famous of which was with Gilda Radner. Confessional in the literal sense (Jewish guilt factors prominently) as well as the stylistic (much of the narrative is a conversation with his therapist), the story follows a chronological arc, with hilarious and lovely anecdotal reminiscences of such figures as Carol Channing, Zero Mostel, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Arthur Penn. Wilder often concludes chapters with a daisy chain-like summation, e.g., if-Stanley-Donen-hadn't-rearranged-hi s-schedule-I-wouldn't-have-met-Madeline-Kahn, as if to say everything works out for the best. A wonderful addition to the entertainment memoir Gene pool.-Barry X. Miller, Austin P.L., TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An actor's life, as told in flashback. Gene Wilder is familiar to the American public as the mad scientist in Young Frankenstein and the kooky Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. Not so familiar is Jerry Silberman: that is, Gene Wilder himself in his pre-acting days. This "autobiography" is really more about Silberman than Wilder, who uses a rather unusual device to tell Jerry's story: his visits to psychiatrist Margie Waller become a filter for his memories of life as Jerry Silberman. The young Jerry is an introspective boy with a gift for comedy who can make his mother laugh-she has a heart condition, and Jerry tries to relieve any stress that might aggravate it. His early reminiscences seem focused equally on acting and on encounters with the opposite sex, although there's a bizarre little ramble about his compulsion to pray, which is humorous in a pathos-filled way. The acting memories make sense-Wilder entertainingly relates how his early acting experiences formed a foundation for his successful acting career. Surprisingly enough, his tales of sexual liaisons with young women are not played for broad humor but are told in a rather matter-of-fact, straightforward style, with tiny nuggets of humor buried deep. These opening pages set the tone for the rest, where the focus remains on acting and relationships, all told in the same matter-of-fact style, with subtle snippets of humor sprinkled throughout. It's not an autobiography in the usual sense of the word, but it does give the reader an understanding of Jerry Silberman's deliberate transformation into Gene Wilder. Wilder is quite candid about his life, not flinching at all when it comes to sharing intimate details.Especially poignant is the section on his romance with Gilda Radner, the comic actress who became his wife and was to die of cancer (It's Always Something, 1989). Wilder evidently wrote the book himself, and did well; it's an honest, affecting look at his life. Strong, tender, and revealing. Agent: Andrew Hersh/Crystal Sky

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt

Kiss Me Like a Stranger

My Search for Love and Art
By Gene Wilder

St. Martin's Griffin

Copyright © 2005 Gene Wilder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780312337070

Chapter One


1962-New York

I walked into Marjorie Wallis's small office on West Seventy-ninth Street. I was very nervous.

"What do I call you?" I asked.

"What do you want to call me?"

"I heard Dr. Steiner call you Margie on the telephone ... is that all right?"

"Margie it is! Sit down."

She indicated the plain couch in front of me. There were no pictures on the walls. Margie sat in a comfortable-looking armchair, with an ottoman-which she wasn't using-resting in front of her. Her face wasn't warm, but it wasn't stern, either.

"What seems to be the trouble?" she asked.

I couldn't bring myself to look at her.

"I want to give all my money away."

"How much do you have?"

"... I owe three hundred dollars."

She looked at me silently for four or five seconds.

"I see. Well, let's get to work, and maybe by the time you have some money you'll be wise enough to know what to do with it. In the meantime tell me about ..."

And then she asked me a lot of questions. "Your mother was how old? ... How did you feel when the doctor said that? ... Have you ever tried toblah, blah, blah?" I took so many long pauses before I answered each question that I thought she might throw me out, but she just sat there, with her feet up on the ottoman now, and waited. When I did start talking again, she made little notes on a small pad that rested on her lap.

What I couldn't understand was this: why on earth was I thinking about a fifteen-year-old girl named Seema Clark during all my long pauses in between Margie's questions? Seema kept popping into my head while I was talking about my mother and doctors and heart attacks and my Russian father and masturbation.

I thought Seema was Eurasian when I met her the first time-she certainly didn't look Jewish-but when we both came out of the synagogue together I realized that she must be Jewish. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. I was only fifteen, but I had seen a lot of movies and I thought she looked like a very thin, teenage Pita Hayworth. I was her date when Seema had her fifteenth birthday party. There were eight or ten other kids at her house that night, all laughing their heads off at some wisenheimer who was "hypnotizing" one of the girls. I thought he was pretty stupid, but I enjoyed watching the cocky little faker who thought he knew how to hypnotize people because he'd read his uncle's book on hypnosis.

Seema held my hand while we watched the "hypnotist" go through his fake talk. I knew she really liked me. She looked so pretty that night, with a pink barrette in her hair and wearing a brand-new yellow angora sweater. Her mother served all of us birthday cake and some delicious coffee. When all the other kids had gone home, Mrs. Clark showed me the coffee can, because I had said how good the coffee tasted-it was A&P's Eight O'clock Coffee-and then her mother said good night and left Seema and me alone.

We sat on the couch in an almost-dark living room and started kissing. I was shy, but I didn't want Seema to know how shy I really was, so I put on an act as if I were used to all this kissing in the dark with no one around. I thought that she was probably more experienced than I was and I decided that it was about time for me to feel a girl's breast. Well, I can't say, "I decided"-I was just going on what I'd heard from all the other boys my age, especially my cousin Buddy, who was nine months older than me.

It took me about eight minutes to get my hand near the start of Seema's breast-the hairs of her new angora sweater kept coming off in my fingers, which certainly didn't help any. After another three of four minutes, I finally put my hand on about one-third of her breast. As soon as I did, she jerked away. My mouth went dry. She looked at me with such disappointment in her eyes and said, "You're just like all the other boys, aren't you?" I flushed so hot I thought I'd burst. I couldn't understand why she didn't say anything during all the kissing and creeping up the fake angora. Why didn't she just say, "No," of, "I don't want you to do that," or anything but what she did say? I wanted to tell her that I wasn't at all like all the other boys, that I thought she would like what I was doing, that I thought she was waiting for me to do it. But I was too embarrassed to say any of those things. I just said, "I'm sorry, Seema," and then wished her happy birthday and got out of there as fast as I could.

Of course, this all happened in little pictures that popped into my head during the long pauses with Margie. The whole memory probably lasted only a few seconds. Margie's voice suddenly burst in:

"Where are you?"

"... What do you mean?"

"Lie down on the couch. You're not as innocent as you pretend and Dr. Steiner assures me that you're no dummy. I want you to start talking and tell me everything that crosses your mind-everything-however embarrassing or insignificant you think it is. I don't know whether of not I can help you and I don't know how many times you and I will be seeing each other in the future, but whether it's one more time or several years ... don't ever lie to me."

Chapter Two



I used to be Jerry Silberman. When I was eight years old, my mother had her first heart attack. After my father brought her home from the hospital, her fat heart specialist came to see how she was doing. He visited with her for about ten minutes, and then, on his way out of the house, he grabbed my right arm, leaned his sweaty face against my cheek, and whispered in my ear,

"Don't ever argue with your mother-you might kill her."

I didn't know what to make of that, except that I could kill my mother if I got angry with her. The other thing he said was:

"Try to make her laugh."

So I tried. It was the first time I ever consciously tried to make someone laugh. I did Jewish accents and German accents and Danny Kaye songs that I learned from his first album, and I did make my mother laugh. Every once in awhile, if I was a little too successful, she'd run to the bathroom, squealing, "Oh, Jerry, now look what you've made me do!"

* * *

Some people-when they step into the ring-lead with their left; some lead with their right. I always led with my sister.

It was a Saturday night. I was eleven. My sister, Corinne, was sixteen and she was giving an acting recital at the Wisconsin College of Music, where her teacher, Herman Gottlieb, had his studio. It was a small auditorium stuffed with about two hundred people. While everyone sat and waited for the show to start, there was so much loud talking that I wondered how Corinne would stand it. When the lights started to fade, everyone talked louder for a few seconds. Then they all whispered. Then ... darkness!

A spotlight hit the center of the stage, and there was Corinne, wearing a full-length aqua gown. For the next twenty minutes she performed "The Necklace," a short story by Guy de Maupassant that she had memorized. All eyes were on Corinne. The audience was listening to every word. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone applauded her at the end. I remember thinking that this must be as close to actually being God as you could get.

I went up to Mr. Gottlieb and asked if I could study acting with him.

"How old are you?" he asked.


"Wait till you're thirteen. If you still want to study acting, I'll take you on."

When my mother was in pain, the fat heart specialist came to our house. I say "fat" only because Dr. Rosenthal died of a heart attack a few years later, and even though I was very young, I instinctively associated his death with how many Cokes he drank whenever he came to our house. One day he came because my mother felt a terrible pressure in her chest. Dr. Rosenthal told me to go around the corner, where they were putting up a new house, steal a heavy brick, and then wrap the brick in a washcloth and place it on top of my mother's chest, over her heart. It sounded crazy. I waited until all the workers had left the new house, at the end of the day, and then I picked up a good-sized brick, tucked it under my sweater, and walked home as fast as I could. I wrapped the brick in a washcloth and placed it on top of my mother's chest.

"Oh, honey, that feels so good."

In the months that followed I would substitute my head for the brick. I'd push my head down with both hands as hard as I could, and she liked that even more than the brick.

One Sunday afternoon my dad dropped me off at the Uptown movie theater, so I could see a Sunday matinie. I didn't tell him that I'd taken his flashlight out of the utility closet and hidden it in my jacket.

After I paid the cashier and bought my popcorn and Milk Duds, I went into the theater, which was almost full. The picture had already started, but in those days most people were used to coming in after a movie started-they would stay until they saw a familiar scene in the next showing and then leave. This Sunday the movie was Double Indemnity, with Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray. It was in black and white.

I watched for about twenty minutes, but when it started getting mushy (kissing), I took the flashlight out of my jacket and began shining it onto the screen. When people looked around to see which punk was doing this, I shut the flashlight off, fast. When the audience settled down again, I switched the flashlight back on. I started making circles on the screen-my beam of light competing with the beam from the projector. I got such a feeling of joy from doing this, until the manager came down the aisle with a horrible look on his face and told me to come with him. I followed him into his office.

"What's your name?"

"Jerry Silberman. Please don't tell my father."

"Give me the flashlight."

He took my father's flashlight and kicked me out of the theater.

It was drizzling outside. I felt ashamed, standing under the overhang in front of the theater, wondering whether of not to tell my dad about his flashlight and about the manager kicking me out. I decided it would be safer if I waited till my dad noticed the missing flashlight himself ... and that might not happen for months. He was born in Russia but came to Milwaukee with his family when he was eleven. He wasn't dumb, but he was very innocent, and I knew what I could get by with if I wanted to evade a situation.

After I waited in the rain for an hour and ten minutes, my father drove up. I jumped into the car.

"So-how was the movie?" he asked.

"It was great, Daddy. It was really good."

I started taking acting lessons with Herman Gottlieb the day after my thirteenth birthday.

* * *

I was eleven when I learned about sex-from my cousin Buddy, naturally. We were both in a co-ed summer camp. I couldn't believe what he was saying.

"Oh, Buddy, what're you talking about?"

"It's the truth! You put your poopy into her thing-honest to God."

"Well, how could that ever make babies?"

"Because you've got to put your germs into her germs. That's how you do it."

"... Well, what it you're embarrassed? I'm not going to take it out in front of a girl."

"Are you telling me you wouldn't like to show it to her if she showed you her whatcha-call-it?"

"... Well ..."

Then Cousin Buddy told this crazy idea to Alan Pinkus, another one of our friends. Alan was more shocked than I was.

"You're nuts."

"Well, how do you think you get babies, Alan? Do you think the stork brings them?"

Buddy tried his best to make Alan feel like a baby. Alan was embarrassed.

"No, of course not.... I just thought it came from ... putting your saliva in with her saliva."

"You mean spitting at each other?" Buddy laughed so hard that I started laughing too. That was when I figured that Buddy must be right. He was an expert about these kinds of things.

We never talked about sex in my family when I was growing up. The only time I came close to asking about it was when I was in second grade and I was walking home from school with two other boys. We saw a naked lady through her living room window, lying on a sofa, scratching her tush while she read a book. When she saw three little boys staring at her, she jumped up and closed the curtains. We tan away, and I heard one of the boys use the word "fuck." When I got home, I didn't tell my mother about the naked lady, but I did ask her what "fuck" meant.

"You want to know what "fuck" means?" she asked, as she pulled me into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She ran a bar of Ivory Soap under the water and stuck it in my mouth. "There! Now you know what fuck means."


Excerpted from Kiss Me Like a Stranger by Gene Wilder Copyright © 2005 by Gene Wilder. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Gene Wilder has been acting since he was thirteen. After a small role in Bonnie and Clyde pulled him away from a career onstage, he was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role as Leo Bloom in The Producers, which led to Blazing Saddles and then to another Academy nomination, this time for writing Young Frankenstein. Wilder has appeared in twenty-five feature films and a number of stage productions. He lives in Connecticut with his wife, Karen.

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