The world is a little less funny tonight. Gene Wilder, the legendary funnyman and star of such classics as Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Prodducers, Stir Crazy, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and so much more, has passed away at the age of 83.
The news of the two-time Oscar nominated Hollywood icon’s passing was confirmed by his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. Wilder – born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee – had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, but Walker-Pearlman revealed in a public statement that legendary actor actually passed away as result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, which had not been made public before.
“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.”
As Walker-Pearlman mentioned, it was Wilder’s role as Willy Wonka in the 1971 live-action adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic that would become his most well-known – netting him a Golden Globe for his performance. Personally though, it was through his varied roles in collaborations with slapstick maestro Mel Brooks that will always bring me the fondest memories, especially as the cool Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles. It was Brooks who gave Wilder his big feature film break in The Producers, garnering him his first Oscar nod. The pair would team up several times throughout the years.
Wilder also had a longtime collaboration with the late comedy legend Richard Pryor, causing comedic pandemonium in such energetic endeavours like Silver Streak, Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. I would like to think that the duo are once again together making somebody somewhere laugh.
Wilder was not just a talent in front of the camera though, as he also wrote and directed a number of productions, including The World’s Greatest Lover in 1977 and The Woman in Red in 1984. Two years prior to that he would star in friend Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky alongside Saturday Night Live alum Gilda Radner, whom he would eventually start a relationship with. The couple were married in 1984 until Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989. This would inspire Wilder to become a vocal activist for cancer awareness, founding both the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding cancer support group Gilda’s Club, all in his late wife’s honour.
Wilder was much beloved by both fans and peers, and tributes from Hollywood have been pouring ever since the news of his death broke.
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.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
Gene Wilder as one of my earliest heroes. Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka, are CLINICS on comic acting. Sad to hear of his passing.
— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 29, 2016
— Eric McCormack (@EricMcCormack) August 29, 2016
— Orlando Jones (@TheOrlandoJones) August 29, 2016
R.I.P to the incomparable Gene Wilder. You filled so many childhoods, mine included, with wonder, laughter & joy. Thank you.
— Zelda Williams (@zeldawilliams) August 29, 2016
He was always able to make us smile, and that is no small feat. Rest with the stars, Gene Wilder. pic.twitter.com/kxis66bIGd
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) August 29, 2016
Before Radner, Wilder was previously married to actress Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz. He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, whom he married two years after Radner’s death, his nephew, and Katherine Schultz, his adopted daughter from his second marriage.
Last Updated: August 29, 2016