Wilder and gentler: comic genius of Willie Wonka, Blazing Saddles dies


Gene Wilder, best known as Willie Wonka, has died at age 83 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.
Gene Wilder, best known as Willie Wonka, has died at age 83 from complications of Alzheimer's disease.
Gene Wilder won the world’s heart in movies that veered between hysteria and teary-eyed sweetness over four decades

Gene Wilder, who stole the show in comedy gems including Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, has died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83.

His nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said Wilder died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

“We have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate never stole his ability to recognise those that were closest to him, nor took command of his gentle life-affirming core personality,” Walker-Pearlman said.

“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 exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble … He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Wilder, who was Oscar-nominated for his role in The Producers and for co-writing Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks, usually portrayed a neurotic who veered between total hysteria and dewy-eyed tenderness.

He got a great deal of mileage out of that persona in the 1970s for directors like Mel Brooks and Woody Allen.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee and an accomplished stage actor, Wilder played his first memorable big-screen neurotic, a kidnapped undertaker, in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde.

Then came The Producers, in which he played the hysterical Leo Bloom, an accountant lured into a get-rich-quick scheme by a theatrical producer (Zero Mostel). Directed and written by Brooks, it brought an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor. His film career was born.

In 1971 he stepped into the shoes of Willy Wonka, one of his most beloved and gentle characters. Based on Roald Dahl’s book, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was not an immediate hit but became a children’s favourite over the years.

Full-fledged stardom came with two more Brooks comedies in 1974: the Western spoof Blazing Saddles and a wacko adaptation of Young Frankenstein, in which Wilder portrayed the mad scientist with his signature mixture of hysteria and sweetness.

He tried his hand behind the camera but fared better as an actor, particularly when co-starring with Richard Pryor – first in 1976’s Silver Streak, a spoof of film thrillers set on trains; 1980’s Stir Crazy was an even bigger hit.

Filming Hanky Panky in 1982, Wilder met Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner, who became his third wife. They co-starred in his most successful directing stint, The Woman in Red, in 1984. But Radner grew ill with cancer and he devoted himself to her care, working sporadically after that and hardly at all after her death in 1989.

He last acted in a couple of episodes of Will and Grace in 2002-03 as Mr Stein, winning an Emmy.

Wilder’s memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art was published in 2005. He also wrote fiction: two novels and a collection of short stories.

He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991. Before Radner, Wilder was married to actress-playwright Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz (aka Jo Ayers).

News of his death spread quickly through Hollywood, with stars taking to Twitter to pay their respects.

Mel Brooks: “One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

Jim Carrey: “One of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form.”

Billy Crystal: “A giant of comedy. His legacy of films is inspiring. A true genius.”

Russell Crowe: “I saw Blazing Saddles 7 times at the cinema with my school friends. Gene Wilder you were a genius.”


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