Carol Kane Remembers Gene Wilder: "He Lived a Quiet Life"

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"It wasn't a showbiz life," the actress tells THR of the comic actor who died on Monday. "It was very private. But what a great, great life he led. We're all so lucky to have known him in whatever way that we did."

Although she's now starring in Tina Fey's Netflix comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Carol Kane never thought she had a comedic bone in her body. That all changed with one phone call from Gene Wilder. 

"I had only done dramatic work. I had done a movie called Hester Street, a low-budget independent black and white movie, and I got nominated for best actress. And after I didn't work for a solid year. The first and only phone call that came through after that was from Gene. He said, 'You want to be my costar in a Hollywood movie?' It was The World's Greatest Lover. I have no idea how that happened, but I was a lucky gal," a saddened Kane tells The Hollywood Reporter after finding out about Wilder's death on Monday. He passed away Sunday at his home in Stamford, Conn., due to complications from Alzheimer's disease at 83.

The 1977 comedy directed by Wilder, who also starred, needed a leading lady, and to Kane's surprise, it was her. She adds, "I had no idea how he thought that would be a good idea! I had never done any comedy before. I think he just saw something that seemed, to him, right for the part of his wife in that movie. He called me and asked me if I wanted to do it. Just like that, out of the blue."

And she had to say yes.

"We had a meeting at 20th Century Fox and sat in his office, and we talked and I said, 'Yeah!' It was a lovely movie. Maybe it didn't get the publicity it should have, but it's a lovely movie that deserves revisiting. It's quite unique."

Looking back, Kane remembers: "He was very beloved by his crew. There was an incredible triumvirate of comedians that hung out together at that time that I was privileged to be around, and that was Dom Deluise, Gene and Mel Brooks. They were special guys to know and wildly different from each other, yet had creativity that married well. He was very unique and very brave. And generous as a director." 

She continues, "The first movie I saw him in was Bonnie and Clyde, which was unforgettable." And, she notes, "What I think is great about the question of what he'll be most remembered for is that each person asked will have a different answer. Be it Blazing Saddles or Willy Wonka, that's just an honorable position as an artist. Every person you ask would have a different favorite. You can't possibly say, 'This is the one,' because there are so many great 'ones.' "

The former costars had stayed in touch over the years after working on plays at the Westport Theater Center directed by Gene Sachs. "He was a very quiet man. Introspective and a quiet, brave man. He was so brave with his character choices and what he was willing to show, but if you met him on a personal basis, he was so quiet. We've stayed in touch over the years on and off. Not consistently, but I think his life was his wife and painting."

She adds, "He lived a quiet life for quite a while. It wasn't a showbiz life. It was very private. But what a great, great life he led. We're all so lucky to have known him in whatever way that we did."