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Gene Wilder in 2008. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP

Gene Wilder, Star Of Willy Wonka And Mel Brooks Comedies, Dies Aged 83

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Tuesday, August 30th, 2016
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Gene Wilder, the star of such comedy classics as The Producers and Blazing Saddles, has died. He was 83.

Wilder’s nephew said on Monday that the actor and writer died late on Sunday in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder,” Jordan Walker-Pearlman, Wilder’s nephew, said in a statement.

He added 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.

The frizzy-haired actor was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only director 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 gunfighter in Blazing Saddles and as the charming candy man in the children’s favorite Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.

Gene Wilder in 2008. Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP
Gene Wilder in 2008.
Photograph: Jessica Hill/AP

It was for that role that he was most widely known, and Wilder’s face became synonymous with the character from the Roald Dahl novel.

Willy Wonka also earned him a Golden Globe for best actor in a comedy. He was nominated for an Academy Award for the 1968 classic The Producers and also for his work on the script of Young Frankenstein in 1974.

Celebrities expressed their condolences on Twitter when the news broke.

Gene Wilder Tweets

Wilder Tweet

Though they collaborated on film, Wilder and Brooks met through the theater. Wilder was in a play with Brooks’s then future wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the pair backstage in 1963.

He was close friends with 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, and 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.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on 11 June 1933. His father was a Russian emigre, his mother was of Polish descent. When he was six, Wilder’s mother had a heart attack that left her partially disabled. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her.

He studied communication and theatre arts at the University of Iowa before moving to England, where he was trained with the Bristol Old Vic theatre school.

He changed his name after returning from serving in the military, where he worked at the psychiatric ward delivering electroshock therapy, according to the BBC.

Wilder got his start in film with a brief role in the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde before his breakout part in The Producers the next year. Brooks’s first film, it revolved around the efforts of Wilder and Zero Mostel to create a Broadway flop as a financial scam. But their tasteless musical about the Nazis unfortunately proves a huge success.

He would go on to to play Doctor Ross, who has an affair with a sheep, in Woody Allen’s cult classic Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.

Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner, Wilder’s third wife, in Haunted Honeymoon in 1986. Photograph: Alamy
Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner, Wilder’s third wife, in Haunted Honeymoon in 1986.
Photograph: Alamy

Wilder was married four times. He met his third wife, Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, when they co-starred in the 1982 film Hanky Panky. Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Following her death, Wilder founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles along with Gilda’s Club to raise awareness of the disease. Wilder went on to survive cancer himself, after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1999.

Wilder adopted the biological child of his second wife Mary Joan Schultz, Katherine, when the two were married in 1967. However, he became estranged from his daughter later in life. He told Larry King in 2002 that he had a daughter and “lost her a long while ago”.

He continued to act throughout the 1990s and 2000s, starring in an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and theatre shows. He was also the lead in a short-lived sitcom Something Wilder, from 1994 to 1996. He announced his retirement from acting after winning an Emmy for his guest role in Will & Grace in 2003.

He did not appreciate Warner Brothers’ remake of Willy Wonka in 2005, calling the Tim Burton-directed remake starring Johnny Depp “all about money”. “It’s just some people sitting around thinking: how can we make some more money? Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?” he told the Daily Telegraph in 2005.

Walker-Pearlman said Wilder died surrounded by his family at his home. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Wilder.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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