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By Liz Miller
Observer Staff Writer 

Actor Gene Wilder Dead at 83. So Long, Willy Wonka

Beloved Performer Known for Iconic Comedy Roles

 

September 1, 2016

Many remember Wilder as the Candy Tycoon Willy Wonka from the 1971 movie based on the book by Roald Dahl.

Iconic comedy actor Gene Wilder, has died at age 83.

Wilder is probably best remembered by many for his role as candy tycoon Willy Wonka in the 1971 movie "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory."

He starred in a number of classic films during the 70s and 80s, many made in collaboration with his friend director Mel Brooks, including "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein," and "Blazing Saddles."

Wilder's wide-eyed look came across as both childlike and mysterious, making him the perfect choice for characters with a naïve wisdom.

He also was an expert at physical comedy, such as the well-known Wonka scene in which he staggers and limps out of the factory to meet the lucky ticket holders only to fall into a last minute somersault down the red carpet.

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer's disease.

His nephew said in a statement, "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 company of beloved ones."

He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1989.

In a 2005 CNN interview, Wilder discussed how he met Brooks, after having been poorly selected for a role in a play opposite the director's then-girlfriend, Anne Bancroft.

"That led to 'The Producers' and 'Blazing Saddles' and 'Young Frankenstein,' but because I was miscast in a play," Wilder said. "And it changed my life."

Other starring roles included a pair of films with Richard Pryor, "Stir Crazy" and "Silver Streak," as well as solo vehicles like "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" and "The World's Greatest Lover," which he also directed.

He last acted in two episodes of "Will and Grace" in 2002-03 as Mr. Stein, winning an Emmy.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, he began studying acting at the age of 12. After getting a B.A. from the U. of Iowa in 1955, Wilder enrolled in the Old Vic Theater School in Bristol, England, where he studied both acting and fencing. When he returned to the U.S. he taught fencing and did other odd jobs while studying with Herbert Berghof's HB Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.

Wilder enjoying the U.S. Open in 2012.

Wilder's memoir "Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art" was published in 2005. After that he wrote fiction: the 2007 novel "My French Whore"; 2008's "The Woman Who Wouldn't"; a collection of stories, "What Is This Thing Called Love?," in 2010; and the novella "Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance" in 2013.

Brooks described the late actor on Monday as "one of the truly great talents of our time."

He is survived by his wife Karen Boyer, and his nephew.

Wilder was previously married to fellow comedian Gilda Radner, until her death in 1989.

Before Radner, he was also married to actress-playwright Mary Mercier and to Mary Joan Schutz (aka Jo Ayers).

 

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