Remembering Gene Wilder, 1933-2016

We’re saddened to report that actor Gene Wilder has passed away at age 83.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, he began acting while still a child, and eventually attended the Old Vic Theater school in Bristol, England. He continued his training back in the U.S., studying with Lee Strasberg, and supplementing his income by teaching fencing. After a decade in theater he became a breakout film star for his supporting turn as blanket-loving Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers.

A few years later, he became an icon to generations of children when he starred as a reclusive candy maker in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. From his somersaulting entrance to his snarky asides to the kids to his heartfelt rendition of “Pure Imagination”, Wilder made Willy Wonka a thorny, loving, and completely unpredictable mentor-figure to impoverished Charlie Bucket, and proving that a children’s movie could embrace moments of darkness without sacrificing heart.

The entrance was particularly important:

I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and then become deathly quiet. As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.

The reason for this elaborate entrance? “…from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”

1974 saw the release of two more comedies with Mel Brooks: the Western spoof Blazing Saddles, and what is probably the greatest sci-fi satire of all time, Young Frankenstein. In both of these films, Wilder infused ridiculous roles with a surprising sweetness and even pathos, creating enduring characters rather than one-dimensional caricatures.

Wilder starred in a series of comedies with Richard Pryor which, at their best, probed race relations through increasingly wacky situations. Of these, 1978’s Silver Streak and 1980’s Stir Crazy were both the strongest artistically, and massive box office hits.

Gene Wilder was married four times, to actress-playwright Mary Mercier, Mary Joan Schutz, legendary comedian-writer Gilda Radner, and Karen Boyer. After nursing Radner during her long fight with ovarian cancer, he took fewer acting roles, instead devoting himself to raising funds and awareness of cancer through Gilda’s Club, which offers emotional support, education, and advocacy to people with cancer and their loved ones.

Wilder is survived by Karen Boyer and his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman. He contributed unforgettable characters to film, defined many childhoods, shaped countless sense of humor. He is irreplaceable, and his work, both onscreen and as an advocate for those with cancer, is going to inspire people for generations to come.

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