We’ve lost a true icon. Gene Wilder has died after suffering complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83. The actor, who was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, got his start on the stage before making the jump to movies and TV.
Wilder made his professional debut an Off Broadway production of “Roots” in 1961 and performed in a 1963 production of “Mother Courage” starring Anne Bancroft. Mel Brooks, who would later marry Bancroft, saw the show. The friendship between Wilder and Brooks would produce some of both of their most successful films, including “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Young Frankenstein.” Aside from Brooks, Wilder also had an on-screen history with Richard Pryor. The two co-starred in four movies together, including “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy.”
To many, however, Wilder is best known as Willy Wonka. The actor took on the Roald Dahl character in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” The movie wasn’t an instant hit, but has since become a classic.
Wilder was married four times in his life, most famously to original “Saturday Night Live” cast member Gilda Radner. The two married in 1984 and when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Wilder devoted himself to taking care of her. He didn’t work much while she was sick and even less so after her death in 1989.
- He would go on to co-found Gilda’s Club, an organization dedicated to “supporting, educating, and empowering” cancer patients and their families. He last appeared on screen in a couple of episodes of “Will and Grace” in 2002 and 2003 as Mr. Stein, a role for which he won an Emmy.
- Aside from being an actor, Wilder was also an author. His memoir, “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art,” was published in 2005. After which he dove into the fiction world, penning four books, the last of which is the 2013 novella “Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.”
- Wilder is survived by his fourth wife of 25-years, Karen Boyer, and his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, who confirmed the loss. Wilder’s sister, Corinne, died this past January. While announcing the death, Walker-Pearlman explained why Wilder decided to keep his Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret, and it had nothing to do with vanity. He says, quote – “The decision to wait…was 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.”
As with any loss of a legend, Hollywood has turned to social media to pay tribute. Here are some of the first responses to Wilder’s death: