Gene Wilder, Beloved Star of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Dies at 83
Long live the candy man.
Gene Wilder, the actor best known for his iconic role as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, has died at the age of 83.
The actor died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease Sunday night at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said in a statement.
“He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he
exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each or cherished possessions. She was singing ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow,’ as he was taken away.”
The actor had lived with Alzheimer’s for the last three years, his nephew added.
“The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a
decision as a family. 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. It took enough, but not that.”
The statement continued: “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 actor was a frequent collaborator of Mel Brooks, and had starred in a string of iconic comedies including Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
He was also famously married to comedian Gilda Radner, a romance that would end in tragedy after she died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42 in 1989.
Wilder was born Jerry Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Jewish-Russian parents. The budding star – who would reportedly later change his name as a tribute to both Thornton Wilder and a character in Thomas Wolfe’s novel Look Homeward, Angel – got his first big break in the business as part of an off-Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s Roots.
Soon after, the talented actor went on to Broadway where he starred in The Complaisant Lover, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The White House, Luv, and Mother Courage and Her Children – where he met actress Anne Bancroft. Bancroft introduced the actor to her boyfriend Mel Brooks, and a long-lasting friendship was born.
The Broadway star went from the stage to the silver screen with his 1967 movie debut in Bonnie and Clyde. Two years later, Wilder collaborated with pal Mel Brooks in The Producers, earning him an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor.
Shortly after, Wilder took on the role of Dr. Frankenstein in the 1974 classic Young Frankenstein, opposite fellow Mel Brooks’ alum, Madeline Kahn. He snagged another Oscar nomination for that film, this time for adapted screenplay.
He also earned a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture actor for Silver Streak.
But it was his titular role in 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory that cemented his iconic status, and the film has become a perennial must-see for generations of fans. It also earned him a Golden Globe nomination for best motion picture actor.
Wilder was married four times. He wed his first wife, Mary Mercier, in 1960, but the two divorced after five years. Wilder married Mary Joan Schutz two years later and adopted Schutz’s daughter Katharine. The two separated after seven years of marriage.
His third marriage, in 1984 to Radner, remained his most high-profile. After Radner’s death, in 1989, the Young Frankenstein star opened Gilda’s Club in Manhattan, which supports cancer patients and their families. The actor would later marry Karen Boyer in 1991.
In Walker-Pearlman’s statement, he said of Wilder’s final years with Boyer, “He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last 25 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.”