We spoke of Gene Wilder often in my home when I was a child. He was one of my father’s favorite actors and I could not get enough of “Puttin On the Ritz” in Young Frankenstein. He made us laugh, he made us cry. Gene Wilder was a master of comedy and lighting up the screen. He starred in countless films, from living with Oompa Loompas and dancing with monsters, to blazing saddles on the Warner Brothers Lot, always making us smile and laugh. But perhaps most significantly, Gene Wilder made our dreams of pure imagination come true.
On August 29th, 2016, Gene Wilder’s light was taken from this world. At the age of 83, the actor succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. He kept his failing health private from the world for three years so no one would have to worry about him. He passed peacefully surrounded by loved ones, including his fourth wife, Karen Boyer. He is also survived by his daughter, Katharine Wilder.
Gene Wilder, who was born as Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, started training to be an actor at the age of 13. He originally performed only for the stage, until he made his TV debut in an episode of Play of the Week in the early 1960s. His first role in a motion picture was in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, where he portrayed a terrified hostage.
He secured his big break the following year when he excelled in the role of Leopold Bloom in The Producers. He then went on to collaborate with director Mel Brooks. He co-wrote and starred in Young Frankenstein, and had a leading role in Blazing Saddles. He is also very well known for the four movies he completed under the direction of Richard Pryer, which include Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, Another You, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Though Gene Wilder is a significant part of many classic movies, he is most celebrated for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which was released in 1971. Though the movie was not a blockbuster at the time of its release, it has grown into a cult-like classic that has entertained dreamy-eyed children longing to live a life of pure imagination.
Throughout his career, he was recognized with several awards and nominations. In 1962, he won the Clarence Derwent Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Non-featured Role for The Complaisant Lover on Broadway. He was nominated at the 1971 Golden Globe Awards for the Best Actor Award for his portrayal of Willy Wonka. In 1974, he shared the Academy Award nomination for the Best Written Adapted Screenplay on behalf of Young Frankenstein. As recently as 2003, Gene Wilder accepted an Emmy Award for his guest appearance on the hit television series, Will & Grace. Wilder retired shortly after accepting this role.
Not only was Gene Wilder an amazing performer, but he was an amazing man. He was known for his friendliness and kindness, even when his disease began to take it’s toll. Wilder’s positive nature, however, was apparent from a young age. His mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever when he was a young boy. When Wilder asked the doctor how he could help, the doctor’s advice was to “try to make her laugh.” This piece of advice stuck with him. Throughout his life, he worked to make the world a better place. After losing his third wife, Gilda Radner, to ovarian cancer, he actively promoted awareness, research, and cancer treatment. He also helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center, which is located in Los Angeles, as well as Gilda’s Club, which is meant to provide a support network to anyone who is affected by cancer in anyway.
Gene Wilder will be greatly missed by those who knew him in person, and his endless community of fans that love him on the big screen. His legacy will live on, while the man himself can find peace where his own pure imagination takes him.