By David Rosenfeld
James Wilder had not made a movie in almost seven years when he was approached by a writer at a bar in Hollywood called Hemingway’s Lounge. Ordinarily this story would stop here with the actor casting off the writer and finishing his drink. But Wilder is different in more ways than one.
“I said, ‘You’re a writer in a lounge named after a writer talking with me about playing a movie about a writer.’ I said ‘Is Ashton Kutcher gonna jump out and say you’re punked?” Wilder said.
But Wilder ended up taking the script home to read. Turns out it was really good and the story by Scott Fivelson about a washed up screenwriter called 3 Holes And a Smoking Gun would be the perfect project to resurrect Wilder’s dormant acting career. Since its completion, Wilder and the crew have been racking up awards at film festivals throughout the country leading up to a theatrical release later this year.
“It was a very challenging role, a very fractured character, a winner who’s now a loser,” Wilder said. “I knew that if I failed in the part, I’m the one shouldering the film.”
Carrying the burden is something Wilder knows well from his days as a one-man street performer. Growing up in the Bay Area, the young James attended an all-boy parochial school and idolized street performers of Fisherman’s Warf at the time including Harry Anderson and A. Whitney Brown, who each later took their talents to television and film. But at the time, Wilder just wanted to be a street performer who used juggling, some magic and a charismatic personality to capture audiences.
“I just thought they were so cool,” he said.
By age 14, he was performing his one-man show in theaters all over the world including Venice, Japan, South Africa and the Moulin Rouge in Paris where he was a member of the predecessor to Cirque de Soleil called the Nouveau Cirque à Paris. He built his show around chain escapes, juggling, tight-rope walking and fire eating, strung together with political satire. Up until the early 1990s, you could even find Wilder performing on the Venice Beach Boardwalk where he earned a fearless reputation for juggling three running chainsaws.
“If you have a one man show, if you like something or you don’t like something, it’s in,” he said. “I got used to working in a one-man performer fashion where I had complete control over the product. At the end of it I knew it would be good because I’m looking at the audience response.”
“The problem with modern is no matter how modern it is it gets old. It’s new, so new gets old. The beauty of old is it just gets older.” — James Wilder
But film was different. And although Wilder had great success on the television drama Equal Justice, which earned an Emmy, and Melrose Place along with several movie parts, something was still missing from his career.
“My best agent would say to me they are offering you this role and I would say great. Then he’d say ‘Do you need the money?’ And really the answer was ‘No.’ So he would say, ‘Then you shouldn’t do this project. It’s the game,’ he said. ‘Because there’s not enough projects that are going to move you forward.”
Wilder had become a darling of the tabloids at the time for his off-screen romances and a high-profile split from Kirstie Alley, so it was a good time anyway to lay low for a while and focus on other things. He wound up building motorcycles and designing houses.
Wilder now owns nine homes in the Hollywood hills, which he rents on short term leases to artists like Stevie Wonder, Blake Shelton and Stanley Tucci among many others. We caught up to the actor at one of his homes that could best be described as a four-story menagerie.
From the front door a voice over the intercom tells me to come through the door and press four on the elevator. But this is no ordinary elevator. This elevator was dreamed up by Wilder’s fantastic imagination. He said it takes him back to a place he remembers as a child. Indeed, this elevator looks like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with its open cage and pieced together metal work. And no, Gene Wilder is not his father.
As the lift rises through the upper floors, we get a peek at each level. There’s a pool table with a knight in shining armor, a living room filled with antiques and finally the top floor overlooking Los Angeles. It’s here Wilder is frantically making espresso with the energy and enthusiasm of someone onto something big.
“I have people come in all the time who say they are very inspired here,” he said. “This house is like a museum.”
Wilder said he broke every rule in architectural design – too many rooms, a confusing floor plan and arched doorways with custom hardwood doors throughout. But it’s inspired. And who can argue with that? Each home is a little different and when he’s renting one home Wilder bounces to another.
“It’s really playful and fun,” he said.
Wilder, who has yet to marry or have kids, clearly enjoys the free-spirited life he’s created for himself. He’s never sold any of the homes he builds, preferring to keep them to rent. Asked whether he tired of the tabloid attention to his past girlfriends, Wilder lamented.
“They don’t list any of the one’s I’d like them to list,” he joked.
Asked whether he viewed his latest film as a comeback, Wilder said he doesn’t look at it that way.
“I never questioned whether I can do it anymore,” he said. “It wasn’t as if, oh boy I wonder if I lost the gift. A singer that stops singing or a dancer that stops dancing, you do some vocal exercises or you do some stretches and you know your craft. I know my craft and I’ve held up physically pretty well.”
As a lifetime member of the Actors Studio in New York and the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, Wilder spans the entertainment world. After a fire at the Magic Castle years ago, he was gifted Houdini’s personal bar, something he cherishes fondly.
The bar fits well with Wilder’s style. Each home is a little different, he said. Some are extremely modern. Others are French and Moroccan styles. The home in which we met for our interview is filled with antiques, some authentic and others adapted in a style he calls “Steam Punk.” Take the Jewels Vern style cappuccino maker he had constructed from miscellaneous parts. There’s an old fire extinguisher, coffee grinder, disassembled lamp, old vase and a heater. And it actually works.
“The problem with modern is no matter how modern it is it gets old. It’s new, so new gets old. The beauty of old is it just gets older,” he said. “If it has any value because it’s old, it’s going to become more valuable. And if something has value because it’s brand new, it will have less value.”
After spending just an hour with Wilder over coffee it’s clear that he’s driven by creation. Whether it’s through designing homes, street performing or acting, the man is an artist through and through. And thanks to a successful career, he can be the mad-man creator of his dreams.
“Henry Ford had a great line when he said, ‘If you think you can, or you can’t, you’re right.’ Or Picasso said, ‘If you can dream it, it’s real.’” Wilder said. “This country is that. We’re dreamers.”