RIP: Gene Wilder (1933–2016)
The legend of dry, soulful comedy passed away this morning at his home in Connecticut.
Gene Wilder—the comedic actor best known for his roles in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and The Producers—has passed away due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was eighty-three.
While widely and rightly celebrated for his comedic skills, Wilder got his start on the stage, performing in an Off Broadway production of Roots in 1961 and a Broadway production of The Complaisant Lover two years later. That same year, as Variety reports, Mel Brooks saw him in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and would go on to cast Wilder in 1967’s Broadway spoof The Producers, the first of several comedic landmarks that the two would film together. Later, he would play Jim (a.k.a. The Waco Kid) in Blazing Saddles and, in Young Frankenstein, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “francken-STEEN,” naturally).
But it was perhaps his role as the titular chocolatier in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory that found him at his most endearing. In retrospect, it’s a role that Wilder was destined to play. His comedic sense relied on a certain sense of aloofness, a kind of melancholic intellectual remove that the Wonka character—a bachelor and the sole human being in the entire chocolate factory, after all—has in spades.
In reality, though, Wilder was driven by love both attained and lost. He was married to the actress and SNL star Gilda Radner from 1984 until her death from ovarian cancer in 1989. He largely—though not entirely—retreated from acting in the years following. In 2005, he would release a memoir entitled Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art that traced his life until Radner’s death, and in 1998 he co-wrote the book Gilda’s Disease with the oncologist Steven Piver.
In 1991, he married Karen Boyer, who had taught him to read lips as he prepared for a role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Wilder also wrote three novels—My French Whore, The Woman Who Wouldn’t, and Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance—as well as a collection of short stories entitled What is This Thing Called Love?
In 1999, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and he was declared cancer free in 2005. He passed away this morning at the home he shared with Boyer in Stamford, Connecticut.