Donate

Gene Wilder, 'Willy Wonka' Star & Legendary Comedian, Is Dead At 83

Gene Wilder, the legendary comedian who was known for playing Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and for his numerous collaborations with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor, has died. He was 83.

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman told Variety he died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. Wilder, a two-time Oscar nominee, also had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999, but was in remission since the mid-'00s.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, and began studying acting at the age of 12. He got his professional start in Off Broadway’s "Roots” in 1961, followed by Graham Greene’s comedy “The Complaisant Lover" on Broadway. He had his first movie role in Bonnie and Clyde as Eugene Grizzard, one of the titular couple's hostages. You can see a clip from that film below.

After several years of working in theater and television, he met Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her then-boyfriend Mel Brooks. Brooks showed him a screenplay he was working on at the time called Springtime for Hitler; nearly three years later, Wilder was called for a reading with Zero Mostel. Wilder described the reading to Larry King in 2002: "There’s Mel. He says come on in. ‘Z, this is Gene. Gene, this is Z. And I put out my hand tentatively. And Zero grabbed my hand, pulls me to him and kisses me on the lips. All my nervousness went away. And then we did the reading and I got the part. And everything was fine."

That play of course became The Producers, for which Wilder got an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor. He and Brooks went on to collaborate on two other stone-cold comedy classics, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein—the latter of which he co-wrote, winning an Oscar for Writing Adapted Screenplay.

In 1971, Wilder starred as Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart's film adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. "He had been in The Producers, but he wasn’t a superstar,” Stuart told The Washington Post in 2005. "I looked at him and I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka. He walked to the elevator after he read and I ran after him and I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got it.'"

Wilder had his own stipulations, accepting the role under one condition: "When I make my first entrance, I'd like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I'm walking on and stands straight up, by itself... but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause."

In addition to starring in one of the funniest segments of Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), Wilder wrote and directed four movies (plus a segment in a fifth), and teamed up with fellow comedian Richard Pryor in four films in the late '70s and '80s (Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You).

Wilder essentially retired from acting by the early '00s; his final television appearances include a couple of episodes of Will and Grace in 2002-03, for which he won an Emmy. He told Alec Baldwin in a 2008 interview that, "I don't like show business, I realized. I like show, but I don't like the business."

Wilder was married four times; his third wife was former SNL comedian Gilda Radner, whom he met while filming Hanky Panky in 1981. They married a few years later, then Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986; she died in 1989.

Wilder is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing who coached him in lip reading for See No Evil, Hear No Evil. They married in 1991.

Featured in Arts & Entertainment