As someone said to me not too long after the passing of a celebrity, everyone dies. Of course that is a true statement and I suppose we should all be used to that by now. And perhaps it seems silly to get upset or sad about the passing of someone you’ve never met in person, or someone who isn’t a family member, but celebrities hold special places in our lives, some more than others depending on our connection to their work. Some celebs are adored for their body of work, some for their philanthropic lives off screen, some even for a combination of things. Gene Wilder is one of those celebrities who excelled in life on and off the screen.
Gene Wilder was born June 11, 1933 as Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, WI, and he began studying acting at the age of 12. He attended the University of Iowa and earned his B.A. then traveled to the UK to study at the Old Vic Theatre in Bristol. After returning to the US, he studied with the HB Studio and the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.
Wilder made his professional acting debut in 1961 in Off Broadway’s Roots followed by a role on Broadway in The Complaisant Lover. In 1963 he appeared in Mother Courage with Anne Bancroft, and a friendship with her future husband Mel Brooks developed. Wilder continued to work on stage in such shows as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Luv.
Wilder took a guest starring role on TV’s The Defenders in 1962 and appeared in the television production of Death of a Salesman in 1966. The following year Wilder appeared as Eugene Grizzard, the kidnapped undertaker, in Bonnie and Clyde followed by his star-making, and Oscar nominated, turn in Brooks’ The Producers which led to several successful collaborations between the two. Wilder worked with Brooks again in Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) which he co-wrote with Brooks.
His success with Brooks led Wilder to write and direct his own films, to less acclaim however, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The World’s Greatest Lover. Wilder also enjoyed great success while working with Richard Pryor in the classic comedy Silver Streak, followed by the even bigger hit Stir Crazy. Their third films together were See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You.
While filming the 1982 comedy Hanky Panky, Wilder met and fell in love with former SNL star Gilda Radner. They married shortly after that and co-starred together in Wilder’s most successful directorial effort The Woman In Red. The couple starred together in the haunted house spoof Haunted Honeymoon, but Radner grew ill after being diagnosed with ovarian cancer and passed away in 1989. Wilder cared for Radner during her illness, and only worked sporadically after that, but he helped found Gilda’s Club, a charitable organization for people living with cancer, their families and friends.
Wilder appeared in a few TV shows, television movies and movies following Radner’s passing including one final film with Richard Pryor, Funny About Love, the short-lived sitcom Something Wilder, and the A&E mystery movies The Lady In Question and Murder In a Small Town which he wrote and directed. He appeared as the Mock Turtle in NBC’s 1999 production of Alice in Wonderland, and won an Emmy for his guest appearances on Will & Grace in 2002-2003.
Of course, it goes without saying that Wilder’s most iconic and beloved role is that of candy maker Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The musical fantasy was not a success upon its initial release, but the film developed a cult following over the years due to its psychedelic visuals and, chiefly, Wilder’s performance as the seemingly benevolent, sometimes frighteningly unhinged, factory owner. The often-times disturbing film, based on the classic book by Roald Dahl, has become a bona fide classic over the years entertaining young and old alike.
Wilder has also written several books including the memoir “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art,” the novels “My French Whore” and “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” a collection of short stories, “What Is This Thing Called Love?” and the novella “Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.”
Wilder passed away on August 29, 2016 at his home in Connecticut. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989 and died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 83. He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991, and his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman.