RIP: Actor Gene Wilder Gone at Age 83
Gene Wilder, beloved star of “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and comedy classics “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles,” passed away on Sunday, August 28, 2016 at age 83 at his home in Stamford, CT. His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, which he had been struggling with for several years.
The diagnosis was kept private, Walker-Pearlman said, because Wilder did not want it to become a topic of news stories: “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…” (see the full statement on Variety)
Gene Wilder was born in Milwaukee, WI as Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 and took an early interest in acting. He was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio in 1961. He adopted the name Gene Wilder, by combining the first name of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Back, Homeward Angel” protagonist with the last name of playwright Thornton Wilder.
After doing some stage and TV work, he began his film career with a bit part in “Bonnie & Clyde” (1967), as a hostage. He then starred as Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers.” Brooks and Wilder would collaborate on more films and were good friends. Wilder was celebrated as the title character in 1971’s “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” and he also co-starred with Richard Pryor in a string of well-received comedies.
In 1982, Wilder met Gilda Radner while working on the film “Hanky-Panky.” They fell in love and married two years later. Wilder was devastated when his wife lost her life to ovarian cancer in 1989. He took a break from acting and spent a great deal of time supporting cancer research.
Wilder is survived by his wife, Karen. They married on September 8, 1991. He was estranged from his adopted daughter, Katherine, from his second marriage to Mary Joan Schutz.
In keeping with Gene Wilder’s wishes that people smile when they think of him, here he is as Willy Wonka performing “Pure Imagination.”