Gene Wilder, ‘Willy Wonka’ Star and Comedic Icon, Dies at 83

Gene Wilder Dead
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Gene Wilder, who regularly stole the show in such comedic gems as “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Stir Crazy,” died Monday at his home in Stamford, Conn. His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.

His nephew said in a statement, “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.

He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”

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

The comic actor, who was twice Oscar nominated, for his role in “The Producers” and for co-penning “Young Frankenstein” with Mel Brooks, usually portrayed a neurotic who veered between total hysteria and dewy-eyed tenderness. “My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria,” he told Time magazine in 1970. “After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.”

Habit or not, he got a great deal of mileage out of his persona in the 1970s for directors like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, leading to a few less successful stints behind the camera, the best of which was “The Woman in Red,” co-starring then-wife Gilda Radner. Wilder was devastated by Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989 and worked only intermittently after that. He tried his hand briefly at a sitcom in 1994, “Something Wilder,” and won an Emmy in 2003 for a guest role on “Will & Grace.”

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, whose future wife, Anne Bancroft, was starring in the production; a friendship with Brooks would lead to some of Wilder’s most successful film work. For the time being, however, Wilder continued to work onstage, in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1963 and “Dynamite Tonight” and “The White House” the following year. He then understudied Alan Arkin and Gabriel Dell in “Luv,” eventually taking over the role.

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

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Then came “The Producers,” in which he played the hysterical Leo Bloom, an accountant lured into a money bilking scheme by a theatrical producer played by Zero Mostel. Directed and written by Brooks, the film brought Wilder an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. With that, his film career was born.

He next starred in a dual role with Donald Sutherland in “Start the Revolution Without Me,” in which he displayed his fencing abilities. It was followed by another middling comedy, “Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx,” also in 1970.

In 1971 he stepped into the shoes of Willy Wonka, one of his most beloved and gentle characters. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” was not an immediate hit but became a children’s favorite over the years. The same cannot be said for the 1974 Stanley Donen-directed musical version of “The Little Prince,” in which Wilder appeared as the fox. He had somewhat better luck in Woody Allen’s spoof “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex,” appearing in a hilarious segment in which he played a doctor who falls in love with a sheep named Daisy.

Full-fledged film stardom came 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 Wilder portrayed the mad scientist with his signature mixture of hysteria and sweetness.

Working with Brooks spurred Wilder to write and direct his own comedies, though none reached the heights of his collaborations with Brooks. The first of these was “The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975), in which he included such Brooks regulars as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. It was followed by 1977’s “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which he also produced.

Wilder fared better, however, when he was working solely in front of the camera, particularly in a number of films in which he co-starred with Richard Pryor.

The first of these was 1976’s “Silver Streak,” a spoof of film thrillers set on trains; 1980’s “Stir Crazy” was an even bigger hit, grossing more than $100 million. Wilder and Pryor’s two other pairings, “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You,” provided diminishing returns, however.

While filming “Hanky Panky” in 1982, Wilder met “Saturday Night Live” comedienne Radner. She became his third wife shortly thereafter. Wilder and Radner co-starred in his most successful directing stint, “The Woman in Red” in 1984, and then “Haunted Honeymoon.” But Radner grew ill with cancer, and he devoted himself to her care, working sporadically after that and hardly at all after her death in 1989.

In the early ’90s he appeared in his last film with Pryor and another comedy, “Funny About Love.” In addition to the failed TV series “Something Wilder” in 1994, he wrote and starred in the A&E mystery telepics “The Lady in Question” and “Murder in a Small Town” in 1999. He also appeared as the Mock Turtle in a 1999 NBC adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.”

He last acted in a couple of episodes of “Will and Grace” in 2002-03 as Mr. Stein, winning an Emmy.

He was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee and began studying acting at the age of 12. After getting his B.A. from the U. of Iowa in 1955, Wilder enrolled in the Old Vic Theater school in Bristol, where he learned acting technique and fencing. When he returned to the U.S. he taught fencing and did other odd jobs while studying with Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.

Wilder’s memoir “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art” was published in 2005. After that he wrote fiction: the 2007 novel “My French Whore”; 2008’s “The Woman Who Wouldn’t”; a collection of stories, “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” in 2010; and the novella “Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance” in 2013.

Wilder was interviewed by Alec Baldwin for the one-hour TCM documentary “Role Model: Gene Wilder” in 2008. The actor was also active in raising cancer awareness in the wake of Radner’s death.

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

Before Radner, Wilder was married to the actress-playwright Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz (aka Jo Ayers).

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  1. RIP you wonderful genius of a talent.
    What you did will last forever.

    George Vreeland Hill

  2. Johnny Beckwith says:

    I grew up with gene wilder. He was an amazing man. There will never be a replacement for him.

  3. Chana Ben-Shimon says:

    Back in 1983,I managed a very prestigious law firm in Beverly Hills. One day,I was out walking on my lunch break to get some fresh air. I was walking up Palm Dr towards Wilshire Blvd. I saw 2 men walking very slowly up ahead of me. OH MY GOD—as I got closer,my knees began to shake and I got butterflies in my stomach.. It was Gene Wilder and Art Carney walking together in deep conversation. Well,it was unavoidable. I just had to say hello and try to be gracious and not put my foot in my mouth because these 2 men,if you call them that were one of my favorite actors in the world. And here they were right in front of me. 10 ft,5ft,3ft closer 2ft…I came up around them from the right and tried not to surprise them (Gene on left,Art on right) so I softly said excuse me as i walked around them. Should I? Is it ok? oh i just gotta say something!! So i turned around and told them how much I enjoyed them and how they made me laugh and yes,there goes that foot in my mouth HA! But that moment was so precious and they were so sweet to me — i was obviously flustered..They just simply said,”Thank you”… That was just about the best moment… I just turned and kept walking back to work with a memory that is burned in my mind forever. Gene,with love I wish you a sweet rest.Shalom….Love,Chana

    • Rene says:

      Chana, That’s probably one of the best memories ever. Thank-you for sharing…I felt every word. I love Gene Wilder because I will forever see him through a child’s eye and imagination. I was a young child in the early 70s and Willie Wonka was and still remains one of my favorite films. In fact, i purchased the DVD in recent years and watch it from time-to-time. I’m a jazz musician (vocalist) and just had a conversation recently with another musician (drummer) about how hard it is to make a living as a musician for one and being a creative, sensitive soul for two. Music chose me I didn’t choose to be a jazz musician. There is nothing glamorous about the lifestyle. But what artist do have is the ability to leave behind a colorful and rich legacy through their film, their music, their visual art or whatever. That is the reward of being given the gift to create, make people laugh…inspire. And that is what Gene and Art had. He will always be Willie Wonka to me.

      • Chana says:

        Rene,I just read your response to me. That was such a sweet comment i had to copy/paste it to my files. Thank you :D
        Yes,Willie Wonka and The Producers are my top faves although i thoroughly enjoy all of them. Gene Wilder was an artist in every sense of the word and in a deeper sense his abilities spoke to our souls…. Yes,it is hard to make it as a musician but would you do anything else? I don’t think so. When ‘this thing’ grabs our souls and takes us into ‘that place’,we are willing captives in that: the artistic expression becomes us and we become it. Then the world becomes a better place for the rest of us..(i tried to repeat what i heard someone say a long time ago lol).
        Cheers to you friend.

  4. Rick in MO says:

    Does anyone know where his grandfather’s library is? Could we possibly ” change the poles from plus to minus, and from minus to plus…” “IT! COULD!! WORK!!!” man, I miss his talents already… farewell old friend.

  5. Mathew says:

    Feel long lost after hearing the death of talented people like Gene Wilder. His movies were the good times (dreams & laughs) at my college days.

  6. Ena Nicholls says:

    The first film I saw the wonderful Gene Wilder in was Bonnie and Clyde and then the Producers and my family and I were privilege to see him at the Richmond Theatre London in Laughter on the 23rd floor, he paid tribute we realised to Roy Kinnear when he said “Oh taxi” as Roy had said in Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother. Pure Genius he will be very missed as one of the Greats.

  7. Jim C. says:

    RIP, Gene, you brought us great joy and laughter with your unforgettable roles.

  8. Mary Haynes says:

    There are only a few movies I can watch over and over and those are his. My condolences to his sweet wife Karen.

  9. JOHN says:

    hilarious great fun person

  10. JJ Colagrande says:

    I feel like a terrible person. Thought he passed years ago. RIP. You were a unique and Wildly gentle soul.

  11. Mary Haynes says:

    Gene Wilder, my favorite actor, has given me lots of chuckles and hysterical laughter over the years. Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles were my favorites but loved all, and his wife,Gilda Radner too.

  12. Alexis Sprouse says:

    Willy Wonka is my favorite movie of all time, and when I found out this morning about his pass, I was shock. His legacy will live on.

  13. Gene Wilder became my favorite when I saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. I liked his condescending quality there but what I loved the most was that he remained humble after becoming a Hollywood star.

  14. Fabulous Talent and Human Being……Heaven is a better place because of his Spirit !!!!

  15. janet ward says:

    The day before his passing was made public, we watched Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster. I tried to stay in the serious, scary mood of the movie. But when the monster first showed his intense reaction to fire I had to turn to someone and say, “He needs a sedagive!” Just couldn’t help it.

  16. Maryanne says:

    So happy he is finally with his beloved Gilda.

  17. Dick says:

    My condolences to family, friends and fans. He was true genius at his craft.

  18. So many great quotes from his films that make me smile…and laugh out loud. Sedagive?!!! being only one. And his consoling speech to Sheriff Bart about the people of the land in Blazing Saddles. Or the strained ‘Put ze candle beck’..I loved every bit of his acting. But like other greats who’ve passed on, I can always watch him ply his craft over and over. Rest well, Mr. Wilder…

  19. H. Burton says:

    Why does everyone leave out “The Frisco Kid” a movie with Harrison Ford. It was brilliant.

    • Bruce Baine says:

      Yes! Yes! “The Frisco Kid” was (is) brilliant stuff! The first time I watched it I ran into it totally by accident on cable late at night. What is this movie – why, it’s Gen Wilder – why has no one spoke of it before? It’s like some ultimate sleeper, but Oy Vey! did this man of Scots descent learn his Yiddish after watching it and ultimately purchasing the film!

  20. JOE K. SOLIS DAY says:

    CHILDHOOD MEMORIES INTO THE ADULTS YEARS OF LIFE, HE WAS ONE OF THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME…..R.I.P…MAY U ALWAYS BE REMEMBERED …….

  21. Theresa Bowman says:

    A very sad day! I admire & love this man! R.I.P. Gene….

  22. Willy Stewart says:

    We’ve lost one of the best.. Wry smiling, head-tilting, and laughed like no other comedian-actor before..
    I will always treasure my collection of his movies.. Especially “Another You”..

  23. Judy DeFelice says:

    It was enjoyable seeing you at the grocery store in North Stamford, and seeing you around town. You have left a wonderful memory of someone who enjoyed making people laugh. May you rest in peace. Now your “job” is making many more people laugh in heaven. God Bless you, Gene Wilder.

  24. Timothy Collins says:

    My aunt died this weekend as well… Oddly she was the same age (83) and died of the same thing…

  25. Debbie Vest says:

    Thank u Gene for the laughter. Just thinking about Blazing Saddles makes me laugh. Rest in peace <3

  26. Donna Hagen says:

    What a great statement from his nephew. It sounds very “Gene Wilder” not to want to have children affected by his disease. I’m also glad that he knew his friends and family until the end. When I first heard he died of complications from Alzheimer’s, I felt really depressed that he suffered from such a disease, but it sounds like he held his own against that horrible disease.

    Karen Boyer, if you read this, I know a lot of other posts have talked about him being reunited with Gilda Radner — but rest assured, when your own time comes, Gene will be waiting to help you across the divide, because a heart as big as his surely has room for both you and Gilda.

    • bigballsoffireygoodness says:

      Gene Wilder was a beautiful person and one of my favorite actors of all time; Mark Twain in actor form. But this comment is about the last paragraph or your post, mainly because you know nothing about what happens to us after we die, and I’m tired of reading so many insipid comments from people who clearly have no idea that we don’t actually “go to heaven” or “go to hell” all that easily. Gene is not going to somehow help all 4 of the women he married “cross that divide.” This is a ridiculous statement made out of ignorance and/or something people just make up even though they can’t see jack squat and need to repeat what others have said because it sounds nice. Yes, I do know everything, I’ve been incarnating and evolving on this planet for 9000 years and I’m just tired of hearing or reading this pseudo-spiritual nonsense. Sorry that you had to be the one I unloaded on.

      • Gordo says:

        Wow, 9,000 years?!? That’s a long time to be pretentious.

      • janet ward says:

        Why are you so angry at someone you’ve never met? We all have the right to express our grief as individuals. It’s a sad enough time without the attack.

      • Andro Genius says:

        🐦Cuckoo cuckoo cuckoo! So, what are you like a vampire or something?👹 Blah Blah blah! Lol!

  27. Susan Zuzarte says:

    Thank you Gene Wilder for the happiness you brought into our lives through your acting. Willy Wonka will always bring a smile to my face.

  28. smpj says:

    Clearly a lovely, uniquely talented man. How incredibly fortunate we all are that Anne Bancroft introduced him to Mel Brooks and they got along.

  29. Kathy says:

    Our sympathies lay with you, he was a great man and will be missed. He brought smiles and laughter into the lives of millions. Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles are two of my favorite movies of all times! Rest in peace, Gene.

  30. Catherine Carr says:

    To the family of Gene Wilder my sympathy at you great loss. Young Frankenstein is my favorite movie of all. I still smile and cant help laugh out loud thinking of it. I also remember how devoted he was to Gilda Radner and am glad he found love again. Mr Wilder deserved happiness after all he gave to others.

  31. Bob says:

    RIP funny man. You made me laugh.

  32. Keely says:

    Gene will always be Willy Wonka to me. In those days we kids could spend the entire day in the theater watching Willy Wonka and the… Play over and over again. My heart feels a bit empty today but my mind is full of wonderful memories of Gene on the big screen. Godspeed Gene, would ya tell Gilda K still watches Roseann Roseannadana every chance she gets!

  33. John says:

    Thank you for all the belly laughs and smiles.
    Rest in Peace Gene

  34. Martin says:

    Unique comic actor, thanks for all the smiles X

  35. RIP Gene Wilder you made me laugh when I was sad, you made me smile when I was mad! You will be missed!😖 God bless you

  36. Susan says:

    So sad that they die early from different thinga. So many of the stars die This year God bless amen

  37. Erika Fabian says:

    Gene Wilder was so impressive as a comic, I often wondered why he always seemed to play “second lead” in movies because when he was on the screen, you couldn’t watch anyone else. Watching him I learned a lot about comedy. I wonder whom he is making laugh somewhere in the sky.

  38. Stuart Glaze says:

    The so-called middling comedy, “Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx”, was one of Gene’s personal favorite film acting performance! As he stated many times in interviews. But, oddly, he was disappointed with his performance in Willy Wonka…go figure.

  39. FrankenFan says:

    SEDAGIVE??????
    Thankfully for film, Wilder will always keep us howling.

  40. Ziglveit B. Shtoonk says:

    He struck me as a gentle man who was also a gentleman. There never are enough of them around,. and today there is one less. I’m grateful for the many opportunities to see his film work. Again and again.

  41. The thing that struck me was his deep love for Gilda and friends like Richard Pryor–he was a class act and funny as hell. RIP love.

  42. Dee Dee says:

    Brilliant tribute to Willy Wonka. He will be missed. Imagine Gene and Robin Williams cutting up in Heaven!

  43. Chris Hodapp says:

    “So shines a good deed in a weary world.” – Willy Wonka

  44. michal says:

    Charming actor, may he rest in peace )-:

  45. ltx84152 says:

    my parents in-law recently got a very cool Buick Verano Sedan just by working
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  46. He had a very magnetic appearance on screen, in his interviews he comes across as a decent man who had not any puffed-up-ego, as seen with many Hollywood celebrities.

  47. So sad to hear this. What a gentle soul. He was truly one of a kind. I remember hearing him say he hated ‘biz’ in Showbiz, but he loved the ‘Show’. Rest in Peace, Gene.

    “SedaGive???”

  48. California Dream says:

    I loved him in Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, Willy Wonka and countless other films. An outstanding actor who will be greatly missed. RIP Mr. Wilder.

  49. Occultology says:

    Gene Wilder is the most endearingly magnetic soul to have ever flickered across cinema screens in the history of motion pictures. And he made us laugh on top of it, the laughing so hard that it hurts, while rolling on the floor with tears in our eyes, kind of laughter that is unforgettable. His innate goodness will radiate to generations yet to be born.

  50. Jay Friedkin says:

    One thing that is often overlooked is that Gene wrote the original script to Young Frankenstein. He brought it to Mel, who then added his schtick to it. The original script was classic Gene, and though wonderful, Mel brought the lunacy and crass balance to it.

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