At age 23, Carol Kane was fresh off a Best Actress Oscar nomination with no prospects on the horizon. The phone hadn't rung for a year, she said. Then Gene Wilder called.
"Out of the blue I got a call from Gene saying that he'd like to meet me about 'The World's Greatest Lover,'" Kane said Monday. "(It) was a comedy, which I'd never done before. I have no idea why he thought I could do it, but he was a purist, he was kind of a poet and I met him and he asked me to do this movie with him."
Wilder, who died Sunday at 83, wrote, directed and starred in "The World's Greatest Lover," about a baker (Wilder) and his wife (Kane) who move to Hollywood during the silent film era to enter a talent search for someone who might compete with Rudolph Valentino.
Kane, 64, was only 25 by the time it wrapped, getting that call from Wilder felt like "a second chance," she said. She remembers Wilder being compassionate and inspirational as a director but serious and sensitive, too.
"(He was) clearly one the great clowns — the Chaplin of talkies in some ways," she said.
"The World's Greatest Lover" was not particularly well-received when it came out in 1977. Kane thinks it might not have gotten the right publicity.
"It was a little under the radar unfortunately," she said. "But I think that it holds up beautifully and that it's lovely and funny and worth a second look."
Kane would stay in touch with Wilder on and off over the years, and she loved seeing the friendship of Wilder, Mel Brooks and Dom DeLuise (who also starred in "The World's Greatest Lover" as the studio mogul).
Wilder and Kane reunited in 2001 to perform in three classic one-act farces at the Westport Country Playhouse, but she'll always remember the great significance of that phone call more than 40 years ago.
"He was a gentle man and a gentleman ... a true, true artist," Kane said. "We never saw anyone like him before or after."