Gene Wilder, beloved comedy actor known for his many iconic roles over the years in films such as Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and especially Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, passed away at his home on Monday. He was 83. His family first released the news to the Associated Press.
The star, who has been largely retired since the late '90s, began his acting career in the '60s with an Off-Broadway production of Roots. From there, his star quickly rose. Wilder moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway, and from the stage to the screen as he appeared on television throughout the first half of the decade. By 1967, Wilder moved on to film and blew us away from the very start. His role as Leo Bloom in The Producers won him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor — but more importantly, it marked the start of a long working relationship with director Mel Brooks.
Wilder's work with Brooks is some of his best known, and with good reason. The two collaborated on classic slapstick, including Western parody Blazing Saddles and their take on monster movies in Young Frankenstein (which Wilder co-wrote). In front of the camera, Wilder loved to work with Richard Pryor — another iconic comedic actor who joined him for buddy comedies such as See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
To many, though, Wilder will always be remembered as Willy Wonka - Roald Dahl's wacky chocolate factory owner brought to life in the 1971 classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. It was a role that would make him beloved to generations to come.
A statement from his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, gives this role as the reason for the family's decision not to make his worsening health issues public, saying that Wilder did not want children to hear that Willy Wonka was ill, and become concerned.
We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. 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 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.
He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.
Wilder had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1989, and his death was due to complications from Alzheimer's disease.
Our hearts go out to his nephew, his wife Karen Boyer, and to his family and many fans at this difficult time.