David Henry Hwang won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1988 for his drama M. Butterfly, about French diplomat Rene Gallimard in China who conducts a 20-year affair with a beautiful Chinese opera singer who turns out to be a spy—and a man.
John Lithgow earned a Tony nomination as Best Actor in a Play for his performance in the title role. But Hwang wrote in his AngryAsianMan.com blog that Lithgow wasn't his first choice for the role. It was comic actor Gene Wilder, who died this week.
Wilder is known for his iconic film performances in The Producers, Young Frankenstein, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and many other movies. But he started his career on Broadway, and was contemplating a return.
“Gene had some reservations about the script,” Hwang wrote, “so my producer Stuart Ostrow and I were privileged to enjoy several meetings with him at his home in Los Angeles. Always kind and generous, meticulous and probing, with a keen intelligence, he struggled with the fact that Gallimard serves both as my play’s narrator, and one of its two major characters. ‘I don't know how to be Gallimard and the Stage Manager at the same time,’ he would declare, referencing the narrator character in Thorton Wilder's classic Our Town. We went back and forth debating, while all the time, a little voice in the back of my head was going, ‘This is so cool! I'm talking about my play with Dr. Fronkensteen!’
“Most memorable of all was a dinner we shared at his home, where I got to meet his wife Gilda Radner, an original cast member of Saturday Night Live, who I had also idolized since my college days. At that time in 1987, she had already been diagnosed with Stage IV Ovarian Cancer, undergone a hysterectomy, and been through chemotherapy and radiation treatment. Unsurprisingly, she was a bit frail, yet unfailingly lovely, gracious, and still very funny. Like many comedians, Gene was deeply serious in his private life. Yet I will always remember the loving care he showed to Gilda. I can still picture him at her side, holding her arm, escorting her into the dining room, making sure that she ate.
“Eventually, Gene's discomfort with the narrator aspects of the part caused him to withdraw from my play, and we were very lucky to cast John Lithgow.... It is fun to speculate how the famously comic Wilder might have interpreted the dramatic role of Rene Gallimard. But when I think of Gene, I am lucky to remember him as more than the brilliant performer who brought the world so much joy. I can think of him, not only as a major actor, not only a comic genius, but also, as a great lover.”
Read Hwang's complete blog entry here.
Here is a clip from Hwang’s Broadway play, Golden Child.