Gene Wilder, an American comedic actor, screenwriter, film director and author, passed away in his home on Aug. 29, 2016. Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman confirmed that his death was from complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
His family kept his disease a secret, claiming that Wilder “couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
“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,” said Walker-Pearlman in a statement.
Wilder, age 83, was most famously known his works with director Mel Brooks in “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers” as well as his famous role in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” His partnership with Richard Pryor also gained him fame in “Silver Streak,” “Another You” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil.” With his unruly hair and big, bulging blue eyes, Wilder became an iconic comedic actor for generations to come.
Wilder, born Jerome Silberman, began studying acting at age 12 and started with stage acting. He joined the Actors Studio in Manhattan where he won the Clarence Dement Award for his work in “The Complaisant Lover.” Around this time, Wilder created his name from the character Eugene Grant and playwright Thornton Wilder.
His first big role in film was in the 1968 crime film “Bonnie and Clyde” with Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. From there, his wacky and off-the-wall acting style gained fame. Wilder received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in “The Producers” where he played the introverted accountant Leo Bloom.
The peak of Wilder’s career occurred in 1974 where he starred and directed “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” He co-wrote “Frankenstein” alongside Mel Brooks, earning him his second Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Throughout his acting career, Wilder was married four times. His first marriages to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz lasted from 1960 to 1974. In 1984, he married Gilda Radner, who later died from ovarian cancer. After her death in 1989, Wilder’s acting career began declining.
The last film he directed was the 1986 horror comedy “Haunted Honeymoon” in which he and Radner performed. In 1991, he married Karen Boyer. His last major acting appearance occurred in 2003 on NBC’s show “Will and Grace.” This role earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in Comedy.
Wilder’s last public appearance was in 2015 at the U.S. Open in Queens, NY. He was seen with Boyer and appeared in somewhat good health.
His family confirmed his death in Stamford, CT. They claimed he died while holding their hands as his favorite song “Somewhere over the Rainbow” by Ella Fitzgerald played on the radio.
“He passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember,” stated Walker-Pearlman. “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”
After his death, Mel Brooks Tweeted “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.” Jim Carrey added to the tribute by Tweeting “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take human form. If there’s a heaven, he has a golden ticket.”