“How’s this interview going? Do you think you’re talking to a normal person here?”
He will be remembered for his impish grin and witty performances in films such as Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles. Actor Gene Wilder—described as “a giant of comedy” by Billy Crystal and “one of the truly great talents of our time” by frequent collaborator Mel Brooks—passed away at 83 at his home in Stamford, Conn.
The leading man, writer and director with crystal-blue eyes and a mop of frizzy curls had been quietly battling Alzheimer’s disease over the last three years, his family revealed.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity,” his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said. Instead, Gene wanted to ensure that his young fans would continue to approach him on the street as they always had—without apprehension. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee in 1933, Gene started out as a stage actor and made his onscreen debut with a scene-stealing part in 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. He went on to earn an Oscar nomination the following year for Mel Brooks’s classic comedy The Producers. He and Mel also made the hits Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. But it was Gene’s quirky, compelling turn as candy man Willy Wonka in the 1971 film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book that earned him generation after generation of new fans.
In 1989, the comedy star faced personal tragedy when his third wife, Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner, died from ovarian cancer. (They met making 1982’s Hanky Panky, when Gilda took over a role written for Gene’s frequent co-star, Richard Pryor.) “I had one great blessing: I was so dumb. I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it,” the actor said.
In his later years, Gene—who retired from acting soon after winning an Emmy for a 2003 guest spot on Will & Grace—published a memoir and several novels. He leaves behind a daughter and his fourth wife, Karen Webb.
“I’m saddened for the comedy world,” said Richard’s daughter, Rain Pryor, who knew Gene for decades. “But I am happy because Mr. Wilder now gets to be with the love of his life, Gilda Radner, and say hi to my pops.”
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