Gene Wilder, the star of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, among many other films, is dead at 83.
Wilder’s nephew said Monday that the actor and writer died earlier this month in Stamford, Connecticut from complications resulting from a battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement that Wilder was diagnosed with the disease three years ago, but kept the condition private so as not to disappoint fans.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said. Walker-Pearlman’s full statement is below.
The frizzy-haired actor was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only a madman such as Mel Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in Young Frankenstein or bilking Broadway in The Producers.
But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozy sheriff in Blazing Saddles and as the charming candy man in the children’s favourite Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.
Wilder was beloved in Hollywood after his many decades in the industry, and celebrities expressed their condolences over Twitter.
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
Gene Wilder as one of my earliest heroes. Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka, are CLINICS on comic acting. Sad to hear of his passing.
— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 29, 2016
"Good Day Sir!"
RIP Gene Wilder
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) August 29, 2016
I saw Blazing Saddles 7 times at the cinema with my school friends . George St. Cows outside.
Gene Wilder you were a genius. Rest in Peace.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) August 29, 2016
Wilder, a Milwaukee native, was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1935. His father was a Russian emigre and his mother was of Polish descent. When he was 6, Wilder’s mother suffered a heart attack that left her a semi-invalid. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her, the first indication of his future career.
While Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but most people knew him for his work on film. His craziest role was arguably the therapist having an affair with a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.
He was close friends with late comedian and actor Richard Pryor, and their contrasting personas — Wilder uptight, Pryor loose — were ideal for comedy. They co-starred in four films: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. They created several memorable scenes, particularly when Pryor provided Wilder with directions on how to “act black” as they tried to avoid police in Silver Streak.
In 1968, Wilder received an Oscar nomination for his work in Brooks’ The Producers. He played the introverted Leo Bloom, an accountant who discovers the liberating joys of greed and corruption as he and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) conceive a Broadway flop titled Springtime For Hitler and plan to flee with the money raised for the show’s production.
Matthew Broderick played Wilder’s role in the 2001 Broadway stage revival of the show.
Though they collaborated on film, Wilder and Brooks met through theatre. Wilder was in a play with Brooks’ then-future wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the pair backstage in 1963.
Wilder started taking acting classes around age 12 and continued performing and taking lessons throughout college. In 1961, Wilder became a member of Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio in Manhattan.
That same year, he made both his off-Broadway and Broadway debuts. He won the Clarence Derwent Award, given to promising newcomers, for the Broadway work in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover.
He used his new name, Gene Wilder, for the off-Broadway and Broadway roles. He lifted the first name from the character Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Back, Homeward Angel, while the last name was clipped from playwright Thornton Wilder. A key break came when he co-starred with Bancroft in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, and met Brooks, her future husband.
“I was having trouble with one little section of the play, and he gave me tips on how to act. He said, ‘That’s a song and dance. He’s proselytizing about communism. Just skip over it, sing and dance over it, and get on to the good stuff.’ And he was right,” Wilder later explained.
Before starring in The Producers, he had a small role as the hostage of gangsters in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. He peaked in the mid-1970s with the twin Brooks hits Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
He went on to write several screenplays and direct several films. In 1982, while making the generally forgettable Hanky-Panky, he fell in love with co-star Gilda Radner. They were married in 1984, and co-starred in two Wilder-penned films: The Lady in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.
After Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder spent much of his time promoting cancer research. He opened a support facility for cancer patients called Gilda’s Place, and in 1991, he testified before U.S. Congress about the need for increased testing for cancer.
Wilder is survived by his wife, Karen, whom he married in 1991.