For the entirety of 2016 it’s seemed like not a week has gone by without the loss of a major luminary in the fields of film, music and sport, and now, so it seems, we couldn’t even make it to Labour Day without Death’s swift hand catching another one. More sad news today from Hollywood (or rather Connecticut to be precise) that actor/writer/producer/director Gene Wilder has passed away after a long battle with illness. His nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, announced that Wilder died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease earlier today at the age of 83. Left behind is a legacy of laughter in many signature roles from one of the most brilliant comedic actors of the 60s, 70s and 80s.
Like a lot of actors, Wilder got his start in theater and small TV roles before making a name for himself in the movies. He made the transition in 1967 appearing as one of the many people victimized by Bonnie and Clyde in the Arthur Penn classic of the same name. That same year he appeared opposite Zero Mostel in The Producers, the often cited Mel Brooks classic about an accountant and a theatre producer who plot to rip off millions of dollars from investors for launching a musical doomed to failure until it somehow manages to be a smash success. Wilder won the first to two Academy Award nominations for his role as Leo Bloom.
In the 70s, Wilder cemented his star status, first by appearing as the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which wasn’t a smash success at the time of its release but has since become a family classic. Wilder beat Fred Astaire, Peter Sellers. Joel Grey, and all six members of Monty Python for the part of Wonka, and accepted the role on condition that he be allowed to perform the elaborate entrance that’s one of the signature scenes in the film. Wilder said he liked the idea of doing in because “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
In 1974, Wilder re-teamed with Brooks for what’s arguably their two biggest collaborations, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Wilder played Dr. Frankenstein in the latter film, but he garnered his second Academy Award nomination for co-writing the screenplay with Brooks. With Blazing Saddles, Wilder was introduced to Richard Pryor who co-wrote the screenplay of that movie with Brooks, and the two went on to have a lucrative partnership of their own through four movies, Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. Stir Crazy remains one of the most successful comedies in terms of box office, making over $100 million in 1980.
Wilder receded from the spotlight in the late 80s when his third-wife Gilda Radner became sick with ovarian cancer. She passed away in 1989, but Wilder became a passionate advocate and fundraiser for cancer research in Radner’s honour, including co-founding Gilda’s Club, a chain of community centres meant to be gathering places for people with cancer and their friends and family. As for show business, Wilder has mostly stayed out of the limelight with the exception of a few TV roles. His last credit was in an episode of Will & Grace in 2002, for which he won an Emmy.
On the occasion of Wilder’s death, his frequent collaborator Mel Brooks said on Twitter, “Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”
Wilder is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, and his nephew.