Comedy legend Gene Wilder dies, aged 83

Gene Wilder

by James White |
Published on

When no less a man than Mel Brooks describes you as "one of the truly great talents of our time", you know you were successful in your career. But Gene Wilder was more than just his movies; he was a unique, brilliant and hilarious person. The comedy legend and actor has died, aged 83.

Wilder was born Jerome Silverman in Milwaukee, in 1933, and became interested in acting early. He graduated with a BA from the University of Iowa in 1955, and headed here to the UK to study at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol. While there, he learned acting techniques and fencing, and would apply what he learned to teach the skill alongside other odd jobs while he studied with Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.

He made his professional debut off Broadway in Roots in 1961, before heading to the Great White Way for Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover and in 1963, a production of Brecht's Mother Courage, which happened to co-star Anne Bancroft. Her future husband, filmmaker Mel Brooks was in the audience, and it would eventually lead to a fruitful cinematic collaboration.

Before he worked in the cinema, he began his screen career on television, with various theatrical productions adapted for the small screen and roles in shows such as The Defenders. His film debut came in 1966, in Arthur Penn's Bonnie And Clyde, making a mark immediately as a hysterical undertaker kidnapped by the two criminals. A year later, he made his first film with Mel Brooks, The Producers, which helped kick off a relatively small film CV, but one filled with memorable turns. Among them? Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (which he directed), Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, The Frisco Kid, Hanky Panky, The Woman In Red (another writing and directing effort) and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. The latter film was one of several he made with Richard Pryor, and the two shared a winning chemistry.

Married four times (including to Gilda Radner), Wilder also faced serious health challenges, tackling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and deciding to slow down his career. “I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in 2008. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.” He went on to make a few more TV appearances and returned to the theatre, but largely spent time writing novels, raising money for cancer charities and other causes and living with his wife Karen Boyer, a hearing specialist he met while making See No Evil, Hear No Evil. He died Monday of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

“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," says his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, in a statement. "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."

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