Inside Gene Wilder's Final Days and Private Health Battle

The screen legend kept his three-year battle with Alzheimer's disease secret from the public

Photo: Johnny Miller

Gene Wilder‘s passing at the age of 83 from complications with Alzheimer’s disease was a surprise to many – and that’s how the iconic actor wanted it.

Wilder hid his health struggles from the public and kept a low-key lifestyle in recent years, seldom being seen in public.

But before his diagnosis three years ago, Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, tells PEOPLE the actor “was living an idyllic life” in Connecticut and California. He spent his days playing tennis, writing and painting with his wife of almost 25 years Karen Boyer, a speech consultant he met while doing research for the 1989 film See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

“He would read the newspaper every morning and his personal life was fuller and richer in the last 25 years then it had ever been before,” says Walker-Pearlman.

Yet, in recent years his health began to deteriorate and the signs of Alzheimer’s became more apparent.

“The diagnosis was slow in coming but the symptoms were not,” says Walker-Pearlman who adds he is grateful that despite the terrible disease his uncle “always recognized the people he loved and never changed his core personality. In that sense we were lucky.”

Wilder choose to keep the diagnosis a secret from the public only telling a close circle of friends and family. He said the main reason for this decision was his young fans.

“We would go out and kids would light up when they saw him,” says Walker-Pearlman. “He didn’t want to bear any responsibility for taking away that light or the smiles. He knew there would be a parent, with the best of intentions, who would whisper something to their spouse and cause that child to feel less joy than they did when they first saw him.”

In September 2015, fans raised concerns about the actor’s health when he appeared at the U.S. Open Grand Slam tennis tournament with Boyer. Although he smiled as he entered the athletic event, his frail appearance and thin white hair led
some media outlets to speculate that Wilder’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had returned, according to Page Six. The actor had been diagnosed with the cancer in 1997, but he told CNN in 2002 that he was in complete remission.

In 2014, Wilder appeared at a screening celebrating the 40th anniversary of his satirical comedy Blazing Saddles near his home in Stamford, Connecticut.

According to the Stamford Advocate, Wilder was glad to hear the crowd’s laughter during the film.

RELATED VIDEO: Remembering Gene Wilder’s Best Movie Moments

The actor was also in high spirits when he attended his nephew’s wedding in April 2015. Wilder and his wife hosted the rehearsal dinner and even gave a speech.

“He danced down the aisle of my church and had this burst of energy,” says Walker-Pearlman. And because the disease had already begun to take its toll, Wilder did not recognize all of the guests, many he had known for some years, but that did stop him from being his usual friendly self.

“When people would say hi to him, he wouldn’t always remember their name or face but he knew to give them energy and light,” says Walker-Pearlman. “He was an artist and he always knew how to perform and make people feel inspired and comfortable.”
Walker-Pearlman described Wilder’s last moments as peaceful, he was surrounded by family as one of his favorite songs played.

“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,” he said in a statement. “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.”

Reporting by MIA MCNIECE

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