To some, the name Gene Wilder wouldn’t ring any bells unless followed up with a second moniker: Willy Wonka. The legendary actor who portrayed the quirky candy man in the first cinematic adaptation of the beloved children’s book passed away on August 29.
Wilder has been off the screen and out of the limelight for nearly 25 years. He was 83 when he slipped away that Monday morning due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, a condition that he’d kept well hidden from the rest of the world. He left this world surrounded by his loving family and listening to the gentle notes of one of his favorite songs, Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder’s big-screen career began in 1967 when he appeared in “Bonnie and Clyde” as the infamous duo’s nervous hostage. One year later, the role of Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ hit “The Producers” turned him into a comedy star. That was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Brooks. He would work closely with Brooks again for two of his biggest and most beloved films, “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein”. After landing the coveted role of Willy Wonka in the 1971 classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, Wilder’s career took a short dive when he appeared in flop after flop. It was later resurrected in 1972 when director Woody Allen offered him a role in one of the vignettes in his film “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask)”. The film was a hit and Wilder was back on top.
Shortly after reestablishing his cinematic career, Wilder began writing the script for what would become one of the most successful comedies in history, “Young Frankenstein”. Wilder’s role as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fronkensteen), as well as his lovable cast of silly companions (Marty Feldman as Igor and Peter Boyle as the Creature), still delight audiences of all ages to this very day. While the “Young Frankenstein” script was still in its early stages, a desperate Mel Brooks offered Wilder another memorable role, that of the Waco Kid in the western comedy “Blazing Saddles”.
In the years that followed, Wilder wrote, directed, and starred in a number of lesser known works; some of them hits, some of them not. Even when his career was suffering, his personal and family life always brought him great happiness.
Behind his deadpan wit and sad blue eyes beat the heart of a true romantic. His deep love for his third wife, former “Saturday Night Live” star Gilda Radner, rivaled that of a Romeo’s affection for the fair Juliet. And much like the star crossed Shakespearean lovers, Wilder and Radner’s romance would end in tragedy. In May of 1989, Radner lost a grueling battle with ovarian cancer. Wilder was devastated. Out of his grief came years of research that led him to establish the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program, which provided health screenings to high risk patients in hopes of preventing misdiagnoses like the one that eventually cost his beloved Gilda her life.
In 1991, Wilder appeared in his final film, “Another You”, alongside good friend and fellow comedian, Richard Pryor. The two had collaborated several times in the past on films such as the 1980 comedy “Stir Crazy” and 1989’s “See No Evil, Hear No Evil”. It was on the set of the latter that he met his current spouse, Karen Webb.
After stepping down from the big screen, Wilder took on a handful of television projects, including NBC’s adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” and two mystery movies. He also guest starred in the popular sitcom “Will and Grace” as Will’s boss, Mr. Stein. The two guest appearances were enough to earn him a Primetime Emmy Award.
In 2005, Wilder released his memoir “Kiss Me Like a Stranger” and, in the following years, two novels. In 2013 he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the disease that would eventually claim his life.
Now gone from this world, the beloved actor’s work will undoubtedly still bring a smile to the faces of future generations when they, their children, or grandchildren watch “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’ or “Young Frankenstein” for the first time. Wilder is survived by his wife Karen and daughter Katherine.
After a life of such monumental success and happiness, Gene Wilder has taken Wonka’s great glass elevator and flown it to a better place somewhere over the rainbow. Actor Jim Carrey said it best when, upon hearing of Wilder’s death, tweeted “If there’s heaven, he has a golden ticket.”