For the great comic actor, his sister (of all people) was the key to his lifelong art.
When I was 8, my mother had a heart attack. Her doctor accompanied her home, and while she rested, he pulled me aside. "Don't argue with your mother," he said. "It 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. "And another thing," he said, "try to make her laugh."
Though I'd never before tried to make anyone laugh, I began to sing her silly songs and perform Danny Kaye imitations. That was my first taste of performing. Then one Saturday night, when I was 11 years old, I went to see my older sister Corinne give a dramatic recital. I walked into the Wisconsin College of Music, where 200 people were jammed into the auditorium, jabbering loudly. As the lights dimmed, they began to whisper. Then…darkness. A spotlight hit the center of the stage, and there was Corinne in a lavender gown. As she gave a memorized reading of Guy de Maupassant's The Necklace, all eyes were on her. For the entirety of the recitation, you could hear a pin drop, and when she finished, everyone applauded.
At that moment I thought that standing onstage must be as close to actually being God as you could get. When the recital was over, I asked Corinne's acting teacher if I could study with him. We began to work together, and I fell in love with performing.
Since then, I've been in more than 30 movies. Every once in a while, when I was in front of the camera, I'd think back to the moment I saw my sister up there onstage, everyone around her rapt. She possessed some magic that I wanted, the ability to make everyone shut up and watch.
Gene Wilder's autobiography, Kiss Me Like a Stranger (St. Martin's), is out this month.
From the March 2005 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!