Hollywood has lost another legend today with the death of Gene Wilder, who peacefully passed away today in his home in Connecticut from complications of Alzheimer’s. He was 83.
Not enough can be said about Wilder. The man was truly an iconic figure all across Hollywood with his roles in films such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Stir Crazy, and so much more, the list goes on and on.
Jerome Silberman was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on June 11, 1933. Attending the University of Iowa and upon graduating in 1955 with a degree in Communication and Theater Arts, he was accepted to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in England, where he mastered another art besides acting, fencing. Learning this craft for six months, he became the first freshman to win the All-School Fencing Championship.
He later relocated to New York, where after serving in the Army, trained with the legendary Lee Strasberg. It was there where Jerome Silberman became Gene Wilder, named after both a distant relative and a character in Thomas Wolfe’s novel, “Look Homeward Angel” and author Thorton Wilder.
The newly named Gene Wilder appeared in primarily off-Broadway productions and later hit the big time on the stage with performances in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1963 opposite another legend, Kirk Douglas; The White House in 1964 opposite Helen Hayes; and “Mother Courage and Her Children”, which led to his meeting one of his frequent collaborators, the comedic legend Mel Brooks.
In 1967, Wilder made his film debut in the small role of a hostage in Arnold Penn’s classic Bonnie and Clyde. His 1968 performance as Leo Bloom in Mel Brooks’ The Producers earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In 1971, Wilder gained a role that would make him an iconic figure amongst fans and it was that of the legendary candy maker Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Wilder continued success with Mel Brooks with roles in Young Frankenstein (which he co-wrote) and Blazing Saddles! in 1974.
Wilder also had a successful collaboration with another comic legend, Richard Pryor (who passed away in 2005) that began in 1976 when they starred in the comedy Silver Streak. They would work together again in 1980’s Stir Crazy and 1989’s See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
Wilder tried his hand at directing, making his directorial debut in 1975’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, which he also wrote and starred in the titular role. His 1984 comedy The Woman in Red became the catalyst for a successful career for model Kelly LeBrock, who played the titular woman of Wilder’s fantasies. In 1986, Wilder ended his directing career with Haunted Honeymoon, which co-starred his then wife, legendary comic Gilda Radner, who passed away from cancer in 1989.
After Radner’s death, Wilder slowed down his work and retired after an appearance in a guest role on the hit television series, Will and Grace.
Wilder is survived by fourth wife, speech pathologist Karen Webb.
World Film Geek sends its condolences to the family of Gene Wilder. As a tribute, we present Wilder as Willy Wonka singing the classic “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Rest in Peace, Gene Wilder.