Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka’ and Mel Brooks Classics, dies at 83
The comic actor was at his best in ‘The Producers,’ ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Young Frankenstein’ and teamed with Richard Pryor in four films.
Gene Wilder, the leading man with the comic flair and frizzy hair known for teaming with Mel Brooks on the laugh-out-loud masterpieces The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, has died, his family announced. He was 83.
The two-time Oscar nominee also starred as a quirky candy man in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and in four films alongside stand-up legend Richard Pryor.
Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said that the actor died Sunday night at home in Stamford, Conn., after a three-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity,” Walker-Pearlman said, “but more so that the countless young children who 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.”
His nephew noted that when Wilder passed, a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing. She was one of his favorite artists.
Wilder will forever be remembered for his ill-fated Hollywood romance with Gilda Radner. Less than two years after they were married, the popular Saturday Night Live star was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died on May 20, 1989, at age 42.
In 1963, the Milwaukee native appeared on Broadway opposite Anne Bancroft in Jerome Robbins’ Mother Courage and Her Children. The actress introduced Wilder to Brooks, her future husband, and the couple invited him to Fire Island, where he got a look at the first 30 pages of a screenplay titled Springtime for Hitler.
“Three years went by, never heard from [Brooks],” Wilder told Larry King in a 2002 interview. “I didn’t get a telegram. I didn’t get a telephone call. And I’m doing a play called Love on Broadway, matinee, taking off my makeup.
“Knock-knock on the door, I open the door. There’s Mel. He said, ‘You don’t think I forgot, do you? We’re going to do Springtime for Hitler. But I can’t just cast you. You’ve got to meet [star] Zero [Mostel] first, tomorrow at 10 o’clock.’
“[The next day] the door opens. There’s Mel. He says come on in. ‘Z, this is Gene. Gene, this is Z. And I put out my hand tentatively. And Zero grabbed my hand, pulls me to him and kisses me on the lips. All my nervousness went away. And then we did the reading and I got the part. And everything was fine.”
Springtime for Hitler, of course, would become The Producers (1968), written and directed by Brooks. For his portrayal of stressedout accountant Leopold Bloom in his first major movie role, Wilder earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.
Brooks cast Gig Young for the part of the washed-up gunfighter The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974), but the actor, who was an alcoholic, got sick playing his first scene and had to be taken away by ambulance.
“I called Gene and said, ‘What do I do?’” Brooks recalled in a 2014 interview with Parade magazine. “Gene said, ‘Just get a horse for me to try out and a costume that fits and I’ll do it.’ And he flew out and he did it. Saved my life.”
While working on Blazing Saddles, Wilder fiddled with an outline he had written for Young Frankenstein and asked Brooks to do it with him. Wilder played Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who creates a monster just like his grandfather did, and he and Brooks shared a screenplay Oscar nom for the 1974 classic, released in theaters just 10 months after Blazing Saddles.
(It was Wilder’s idea to have Frankenstein and his monster, played by Peter Boyle, do the song-and-dance number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”)
Said Brooks in a statement: “Gene Wilder, one of the truly great talents of our time, is gone. He blessed every film we did together with his special magic. And he blessed my life with his friendship. He will be so missed.”
For the 1971 musical fantasy based on Roald Dahl’s 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fred Astaire and Joel Grey were recommended for the role of Willy Wonka. But director Mel Stuart wanted Wilder.
“He had been in The Producers, but he wasn’t a superstar,” Stuart told the Washington Post in 2005. “I looked at him and I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka. He walked to the elevator after he read and I ran after him and I said, ‘As far as I’m concerned, you’ve got it.’”
Wilder and Pryor — who was a writer on Blazing Saddles — first teamed up on the train comedy Silver Streak (1976), followed by Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), with Wilder writing and directing the latter pair.
Wilder was born in Milwaukee as Jerry Silberman on June 11, 1933. His father was a Russian immigrant who imported and sold miniature beer and whiskey bottles. His mother had a heart attack when he was 6, leaving her an invalid.
The young boy got his start in comedy by trying to perk up his bedridden mother’s spirits (she died when he was 23).
In high school, Wilder played Willy Loman in his own adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, graduated from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in theater and studied at the Old Vic School in Bristol, England.
While overseas, he became the first American to win the all-school fencing championship, a skill he put to use when he starred as a swashbuckler in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), directed by Bud Yorkin.
Returning to the U.S., Wilder was drafted into the U.S. Army. While stationed outside of Philadelphia at Valley Forge Medial Hospital — he worked as an aide in a psychiatric ward and helped administer electroshock therapy to patients — he commuted to New York twice a week to study acting with Herbert Berghof.
Following his discharge, he changed his name — Wilder is from Thornton Wilder, Gene is from the main character in the Thomas Wolfe novel Look Homeward, Angel — and studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.
In 1961, Wilder landed a part in the off-Broadway play Roots, then played a comic valet on Broadway in Graham Greene’s The Complaisant Lover, for which he earned a Clarence Derwent Award.
He also thrived on the stage in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the repressed Billy Bibbit (played by Brad Dourif in the 1975 film adaptation) and as John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and other characters opposite Helen Hayes in The White House.
Wilder made his motion picture debut in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967), playing undertaker Eugene Grizzard from Milwaukee who, along with his nervous new bride Velma (Evans Evans, then the wife of director John Frankenheimer), is kidnapped by the outlaws.
Wilder accessed his zanier side as an Irish manure peddler in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) and as a doctor with a yen for sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972).
Flush with the success of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Wilder made his directorial debut in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), which he also wrote and starred in. He went on to write, direct and star in The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), for which he also composed a song performed by Harry Nilsson, and played a bumbling Polish rabbi in the Old West in The Frisco Kid (1979).
On television, Wilder starred as an older father of 4-year-old twins in his short-lived 1994-95 NBC sitcom Something Wilder; portrayed Cash Carter, a community-theater director who solves murders, in a pair of 1999 telefilms for A&E; and won a guest-actor Emmy in 2003 for playing Eric McCormack’s boss on NBC’s Will & Grace.
Twice divorced, Wilder met Radner while they were starring in the comedy Hanky Panky (1982), directed by Sidney Poitier. She was married to Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith at the time.
Radner divorced Smith, and she and Wilder were wed on Sept. 14, 1984, in the south of France. They appeared together in The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986) before she was found to have stage 4 ovarian cancer in October 1986.
In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and treated with radiation and stem cell transplants.
Wilder titled his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, something Radner had once said to him. “I had no idea why she said it,” he once offered.
In September 1991, Wilder married his fourth wife, Karen Webb. She was from the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and had coached him in the art of lip reading in preparation for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil. She survives him.
Wilder’s sister Corinne died in January.