Welcome to the first installment of Career Dispatches, a new column from Backstage featuring the stories, anecdotes, and memories of working actors around the world. This week's story comes from Jane Buchanan who, at 18, had the privelage of apprenticing at a theater that was playing home to the inimitable Gene Wilder. What follows is Buchanan's love letter to the late actor, 55 years in the making.
In the summer of 1962, I was an 18-year-old aspiring actress and theater student when I landed a paid apprenticeship at a theater in Mineola, New York, a workaday county seat located in the center of Long Island. Neither a glamorous nor romantic destination by any means, but it was the place where I developed a crush of the sincere late-adolescent kind on Gene Wilder.
At the time, he was a New York-based stage actor, touring in “The Complaisant Lover,” a light comedy by Graham Greene. It was one of a number of pre-packaged productions cycling through a string of East Coast theaters, including the Mineola Playhouse. The play had opened on Broadway the previous year, starring Michael Redgrave, with Gene in a featured part. For his performance, he won the Actors Equity Clarence Derwent Award as most promising newcomer. In the play’s summer circuit iteration, Walter Pidgeon took the lead, while Gene continued in his role as a hotel valet.
Coincidentally, Gene had been the fencing instructor for my class at The Circle in the Square Theatre School in the term just before I came out to Mineola. An excellent teacher, he instilled in me a love of the formality of the sport, as well as respect not only for the physical but the mental agility it demanded. I admired his skill at both fencing and teaching—nothing more. My infatuation was to come.
When Gene walked in through the backstage door at the Mineola Playhouse along with the rest of the actors in “The Complaisant Lover,” he greeted me in a quietly gracious manner, remembering me as his student from fencing class. Those few words are all I remember of the minimal conversation that passed between us during the two-week run of the play. I was ardent, ambitious, and bold about acting and the theater, but shy and tongue-tied when it came to the opposite sex. With my slim, lanky frame, angular features, and straight brown hair coaxed into a pageboy, I could well describe my younger self as coltish rather than kittenish. And anway, Gene was married to a woman who was also in the cast.
I am convinced my crush on Gene began when he said hello. A friendly greeting, a familiar face when I was feeling somewhat lost and lonesome away from home. The effect was powerful. To buoy myself, I gave myself the importance of being smitten. I adored Gene from afar. At least, from the wings. Of course, his acting was superb and I listened, enthralled and carefully, to his every performance.
Gene, as the hotel valet, is called upon to write a letter dictated by Walter Pidgeon. In this comic role, the valet uses and crumples up many sheets of paper while trying to get down the words; the harder he tries, the more frustrated and frenzied he becomes. With his meticulous acting skills and exquisite timing, Gene got his laughs every time.
An apprentice was expected to do just about anything around the theater, from running errands, to painting scenery, to hunting for props, to playing a small role. For “The Complaisant Lover,” I had a pleasant and titillating, post-performance task. With the stage empty and the audience gone, I came forth to gather Gene’s letters, retrieving the crumpled papers from the desk, floor, and wastebasket. Smoothing out the creases, I took the letters over to the work light. Under its lone bulb, I studied his handwriting and communed with his spirit. His halo of crisp electric blond hair combined with his sweet smile and the endearing crack in his voice—not to mention his inestimable Method-acting abilities—put me into a swoon.
I had a crush on Gene Wilder. I treasured his scrawl. I kept each and every scrap of paper. Over the years, I periodically came upon the collection of letters among my souvenirs of the summer until, finally, I discarded them.
“The Complaisant Lover” was the first production of the season in which I had a hand in painting the sets, built in a huge studio space in Lynbrook. The set, a room in a faded but once grand hotel, was painted a deep red overlaid with a stenciled floral design of a deeper red, so that from the audience’s perspective, the wall covering looked like rich embossed silk. Of all the sets that I helped paint that summer, I remember this one vividly.
Perhaps the memory has stayed with me because it was my initial foray into a particular aspect of theater production, or the particular shade of red and its intricate patterning were entwined with my infatuation. As I tenderly picked up Gene’s letters, I did so surrounded by scenery that I had helped to create, and against which he performed every night and matinee.
I think of the heart-red set of “The Complaisant Lover” as my valentine to Gene Wilder: an inspiring teacher, an incomparable actor, and a sweet presence during my summer in Mineola.