Gene Wilder, one of the great comic actors has passed away, at the age of 83, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease according to Variety.
Wilder is rightly famed for his many roles partnered up with Mel Brooks or Richard Pryor in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, Silver Streak, and Stir Crazy. And of course, to a generation of filmgoers he was iconic as Willy Wonka, in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s story.
The breadth of his career is sometimes overshadowed by these more well-known films, so it’s good to also remember his performances in Death of a Salesman, Bonnie & Clyde, Start the Revolution Without Me, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask), The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The Frisco Kid.
Growing up in the 1970s Wilder was completely ubiquitous, a part of the cultural fabric of my background. I saw his work with Brooks – Young Frankenstein and Blazing saddles in particular – so many times at the cinema that I could re-enact Wilder’s neurotic, breathless lines by heart.
Wilder once said: “Actors fall into this trap if they missed being loved for who they really were and not for what they could do – sing, dance, joke about – then they take that as love.” If that was a trap, it was one we happily fell into with him.
UPDATE. Wilder’s family just released the following, quite beautiful statement on his passing:
“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. 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.
He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five 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 the company of beloved ones.”