A comic genius and legend, Gene Wilder, whose best work included collaborations with director-writer Mel Brooks and actor-comedian Richard Pryor, was confirmed by family members to have died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
Wilder best known for his portrayal as Willy Wonka in the 1971 movie classic Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory had chosen to keep his Alzheimer’s secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease. This was shared by his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman in a statement.
He added, “We understand 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 recognise 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.”
Wilder had a long career starting in the 1960’s. He was cast in a leading role in Mother Courage and Her Children, a theatre production starring Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her boyfriend Mel Brooks. Five years after Wilder was cast for his first leading role in a feature film, 1968’s cult comedy classic The Producers, which gained him a nomination in the Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor.
In 1971, he auditioned for the role of Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Though not a commercial success, the movie did gain a cult following and an Oscar nomination for Best Score, as well as a Golden Globe award nomination for Wilder.
Starting with Young Frankenstein, Wilder also dabbled in writing and eventually directing, significantly in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.
Wilder also appeared in made for television movies like Death of a Salesman, The Scarecrow and Alice in Wonderland.
He was also the voice of Letterman in The Adventures of Letterman of the children’s television series The Electric Company from 1972 till 1977. His role will be remembered with Joan River’s introduction – Faster than a rolling O. Stronger than silent E. Able to leap capital T in a single bound. It’s a word! It’s a plan! It’s Letterman!
Wilder’s last television appearance was in Will & Grace as Mr. Stein.
Fellow actors and friends honoured him within minutes of the news of his passing.
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.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) 29 August 2016
Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there’s a heaven he has a Golden Ticket. ;^)
— Jim Carrey (@JimCarrey) 29 August 2016
“Good Day Sir!”
RIP Gene Wilder
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) 29 August 2016
— Stephen Fry (@stephenfry) 29 August 2016
— Elizabeth Hurley (@ElizabethHurley) 30 August 2016
What is your favourite memory of the late great Gene Wilder? Share with us your story below.