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Gene Wilder, Legendary Actor and ‘Willy Wonka’ Star, Dead at 83

Paramount
Paramount

Gene Wilder, best known for his comedic roles in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate FactoryThe Producers, and Young Frankenstein has died at the age of 83.

The Associated Press first reported that Wilder has died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. According to Variety, Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said the actor died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. While Wilder had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, Walker Pearlman released a statement about why the actor kept his Alzheimer’s illness private:

The cause was complications from Alzheimers Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. 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.

The legendary actor was born Jerome Silberman in 1935 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Wilder may be most celebrated for his role as the imaginative purple-suited chocolatier, but it was Mel Brooks who helped introduce audiences to Wilder’s comedic talents. After making his big screen debut with Bonnie and Clyde, Wilder’s first major role was as the anxious accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers, a part that earned him his first Oscar nomination. The pair went on to collaborate on Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the latter which Wilder co-wrote and earned a second Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. After collaborations with Brooks and later Richard Pryor, Wilder tried his hand at writing and directing his own work, including The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover, The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon.

Wilder’s last film role was in 1991’s Another You, and made his final appearances on TV in 1999’s The Lady in Question TV movie, which he also wrote. Wilder announced his retirement from acting in 2008, but he kept busy with his writing. He wrote his memoir in 2007 and released three novels and a collection of short stories throughout the mid-2000s.

In a 2007 interview with PBS’ Blank on Blank, Wilder looked back on why he wanted to become an actor. His mother was the very first person he made laugh, and it gave him the courage to be funny.

I didn’t want to be a comedian. I wanted to be an actor, maybe a comic actor, but an actor. That’s what got me into acting, putting on an act, because in life I wasn’t funny. I felt on stage or in the movies, I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free.

Maybe Wilder didn’t set out to be a comedian, but over his career he gave us some of the biggest and warmest laughs the movies had ever seen. And for that, he will truly be missed.

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