Entertainment & Arts

Director Roger Haines on Gene Wilder: 'A very special man'

Gene Wilder and Rolf Saxon Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Wilder starred in the play alongside Rolf Saxon

Renowned British theatre director Roger Haines, currently directing Michael Crawford in the West End in The Go-Between, directed the late Gene Wilder during his only British stage run in the 1990s.

He shared his memories of working with the US star on Neil Simon's play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor.

"He was a joy to work with. I found out on the TV last night after coming back from a gathering and saw that Gene had died. It was a real blow… you obviously read about people you've worked with [who have died] but there was something very special about that period. He was a one-off. I don't think he ever did theatre again.

"And the most extraordinary thing about the man was that he hadn't done any theatre for 30 years when I worked with him.

"I always remember meeting him for the very first time because the character [he played] was full of idiosyncrasies anyway, so of course the joy for him was finding those Wilder-esque idiosyncratic qualities.

"I remember being in this hotel in London doing a demo of that very iconic walk that he did at the very beginning of Charlie when he came out as Wonka with his walking stick. To have him in the flesh here doing it was slightly extraordinary and fabulous.

Image copyright PA
Image caption The play also took a short tour around the UK

"He'd been recommended [to me] by Mel Brooks. The play was about the writers who wrote for Sid Caesar (the 1950s host of TV series Your Show of Shows). The character that Gene played was based on Caesar.

"It was Mel Brooks who said [to Wilder]: 'You should go and do it, this is a one-off opportunity.' I think he could see that anarchic quality of Caesar was very similar to Gene. That's how I happened to have this extraordinary privilege of working with him.

"The play also did a little mini-tour starting in Guildford and I went with it. If [Wilder] walked down the street, people recognised him and they ran to him, he was almost like a god. I've never been in that situation or had that experience before. It was just extraordinary, people ran across the street to make contact with him.

"It was absolutely the most joyous experience, one learned a great deal from him. He was a very fine actor. He had huge integrity. One can often forget that he actually was first and foremost a stage actor.

"We kept in touch for a short while and then, as happens with all of these things, we lost contact. He went back home. But while he was over here, we had a great deal of connection. We used to have dinner together, my partner and myself and Gene and his wife. He introduced me to Chablis wine, his favourite dry white!

"But it was very sad when I heard the news. It really hit home. I didn't know [he was ill]. He was a very special man in my life."

Roger Haines was talking to entertainment reporter Emma Saunders.

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