Gene Wilder, an inspirational presence in the comedy world who starred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Producers, Blazing Saddles and many other iconic films, died today at the age of 83 in Stamford, Conn, where he lived. Though Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1989, it was complications from Alzheimer’s disease that eventually took his life, Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman revealed. Wilder never made his Alzheimer’s diagnosis public.
“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,” Walker-Pearlman said in a statement. “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,” the statement continues. “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 company of beloved ones.”
Wilder co-starred in Mel Brooks’ The Producers in 1967, which would prove to be Wilder’s big break and the beginning of a long, valuable relationship with Brooks. Wilder snagged a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his Producers role as Leo Bloom. Wilder went on to star alongside another comedy icon Richard Pryor in Stir Crazy, Silver Streak and See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Wilder was famously married to Gilda Radner from 1984 until 1989 when she died from ovarian cancer. Wilder was by her side. They had starred in three films together, having met on the set of Sidney Poiter’s 1982 movie Hanky Panky.
To help celebrate Gene Wilder’s life, let’s check out a few highlights from his career. The first is Wilder’s entrance as Willy Wonka. When director Mel Stuart asked Wilder to play Wonka, Wilder allegedly said he’d do it with one caveat.
“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,” Wilder told Stuart. “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.”
When Stuart asked why, Wilder replied: “Because from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”