Free Press Journal

Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka,’ dies at 83


Los Angeles: Gene Wilder, who became Hollywood’s one of the most iconic comic actors with his delightfully funny performances in films directed by Mel Brooks has died. He was 83.

Wilder made his own space in the industry with films like “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Stir Crazy” passed away early Monday morning at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, reported Variety.

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality.

“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Jordan said in a statement.

Wilder had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989.

The two time Oscar nominated actor mostly played a neurotic, who swinged between total hysteria and dewy-eyed tenderness.

Born as Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1933, he chose Gene Wilder as his professional name at the age of 26, out of admiration for the character Eugene Gant in “Look Homeward, Angel” and the playwright Thornton Wilder.

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He started acting at age 12 before attending the University of Iowa and the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England.

His professional debut came in Off Broadway’s “Roots” in 1961, followed by a stint on Broadway in Graham Greene”s comedy “The Complaisant Lover,” which won him a Clarence Derwent Award as promising newcomer.

His performance in the 1963 production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage” was seen by Mel Brooks. The two became friends and went on to deliver some classic comedies of 20th century.

Wilder also worked in television in 1962’s “The Sound of Hunting,” “The Interrogators,” “Windfall” and in the 1966 TV production of “Death of a Salesman” with Lee J Cobb. He later starred in TV movies including “Thursday’s Game” and the comedy-variety special “Annie and the Hoods,” both in 1974.

In 1967 the comedic star essayed his first memorable bigscreen neurotic, Eugene Grizzard, a kidnapped undertaker in Arthur Penn’s classic “Bonnie and Clyde.”

The next was “The Producers,” in which he played the hysterical Leo Bloom, an accountant lured into a money bilking scheme by a theatrical producer.

Directed and written by Brooks, the film brought Wilder an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.

In 1971 came ‘Willy Wonka,’ one of his most beloved characters. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” the film follows Charlie, who clinches a golden ticket to gain access to the enchanting factory, and is joined by other lucky children.

Wilder played the mysterious, mephistophelean factory proprietor of the title, duping spoiled children into ironic fates. His performance of the song “Pure Imagination” is widely considered a classic film moment.

He got full-fledged film stardom with two other Brooks comedies, both in 1974: Western spoof “Blazing Saddles” and a wacko adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous book entitled “Young Frankenstein,” in which he portrayed the mad scientist with his signature mixture of hysteria and sweetness.

Apart from the director, Wilder frequently collaborated with comedian Richard Pryor. The two starred together in films like “Silver Streak” and “See No Evil Hear No Evil”.

Wilder married  “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Gilda Radner. Radner grew ill with cancer and died in 1989.

He helped found Gilda’s Club, a charity that works to help cancer sufferers and their families find support and resources.

The actor had taken a step back from his acting career in recent years. His most recent credit, a voice role in the 2015 children’s film “The Yo Gabba Gabba! Movie 2,” was his first turn since appearing on sitcom “Will & Grace” in 2003.

Wilder is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991 and his nephew. His sister Corinne, predeceased him in January 2016.