Gene Wilder, ‘Willie Wonka’ star and comedy icon, dead at 83

August 29 16:19 2016 Print This Article

Gene Wilder, comedy legend known to many for his work in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers died Monday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman reported complications from Alzheimer’s disease as the cause of death. He was 83. Wilder had been previously diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and, by the age of 8, he was already interested in acting. In his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, he explained why he adopted “Gene Wilder” as his professional name at the age of 26.

“I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in ‘Look Homeward, Angel’ and ‘Of Time and the River,'” he explained. “And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”

Wilder began his career on stage and made his screen debut in the TV-series Armstrong Circle Theatre in 1962. Although his first film role was portraying a hostage in the 1967 motion picture Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder’s first major role was as Leopold Bloom in the 1968 film The Producers for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. This was the first in a series of collaborations with writer/director Mel Brooks, including 1974’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which Wilder co-wrote, garnering the pair an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Wilder is known for his four films with Richard Pryor: Silver Streak in 1976, Stir Crazy in 1980, See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989, and Another You in 1991.

Wilder had directed and written several of his films, including The Woman in Red in 1984 which co-starred Gilda Radner, who would become his third wife. He and Radner starred together in three films before her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. Before Radner, Wilder was married to the actress-playwright Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz (aka Jo Ayers).

He is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991 and his nephew.

Photo | Courtesy of Paramount Pictures