clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gene Wilder has died at the age of 83

New, 16 comments

Willy Wonka is gone

Legendary actor and comedian Gene Wilder has died, according to reports from multiple outlets. According to Variety, the actor died from complications of Alzheimer's disease. He was 83.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1933, Wilder became enamored with theater at an early age, and after graduating from the University of Iowa studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England. Wilder was drafted into the army in 1956, and later opted for a post in New York so he could continue studying his craft. A disciple of method acting, Wilder made his Broadway debut in 1961, and soon became acquainted with writer-director Mel Brooks. He eventually made a splash on the big screen with a role in Bonnie and Clyde. It was his longtime collaboration with Brooks that catapulted him to stardom, however, starting with The Producers in 1967, where he played a neurotic accountant-turned-theater-producer named Leopold Bloom. Over the ensuing years the collaboration continued, with Wilder standing out in films like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

His most iconic role was as the fabled candy maker Willy Wonka in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. While Wilder was always known for his comedic chops with Brooks, in the role of Wonka he was able to show an earnest, heartfelt side, paired with a distinct sense of whimsy and moments of darkness. More so than any other, the role defined Wilder's career — and the character itself. When Chocolate Factory was remade in 2005, with Johnny Depp starring in the title role, the film was largely derided for its overbearing tone and Depp's choice to take the character in a completely different direction; he wasn't the Wonka that audiences remembered because he wasn't Wilder, and that alone all but ensured the film's failure.

Along with his collaboration with Brooks, Wilder also forged a creative partnership with comedian Richard Pryor over the course of the 1970s and '80s, working together on films like Stir Crazy, Silver Streak, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. While filming the Sidney Poitier film Hanky Panky, Wilder met former Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, herself a comedic trendsetter that had created several iconic characters as part of that show's early seasons. The pair married soon thereafter, but in 1986 Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Wilder largely put his career on hold to care for Radner, and while she went into remission after treatment, the cancer returned several years later. Radner died in 1989.

Wilder eventually returned to acting and remarried in 1991. After his sitcom Something Wilder was canceled in 1995, however, the actor largely stayed away from the spotlight, appearing only in occasional TV roles. His later appearances rarely provided him the opportunity to show off the raucous, delightfully manic energy he was able to bring to his work with Brooks or his role in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex... But Were Afraid to Ask. But for an entire generation, all of those performances largely fall by the wayside in the face of his unforgettable take on Willy Wonka: a character that was equal parts dreamer, magician, and hopeless romantic.

As definitive as that portrayal was, however, Wilder was truly capable of so much more: a deft turn of phrase, a sharp-witted eyebrow raise, a moment of gleeful whimsy, quickly countered by an earnest, warm smile. To celebrate Wilder's work and life isn't just to go to the greatest role that we already know; it's to dig deeper, and explore the work that we haven't seen or had the joy to experience before. It's rare that an actor is able to display so many emotional colors over the course of their career, but that's the power of a rich body of work. It's the power of Wilder, in particular. You can go here, pick any movie, and watch. And then keep going. Gene Wilder always surprised us, and he always will.