Gene Wilder, the Original Willy Wonka, Dead at 83

Actor Gene Wilder Portrait Session
Gene Wilder. Photo: George Rose/Getty Images

Gene Wilder, the comedian who starred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, and Blazing Saddles, has died of complications from Alzheimer’s at the age of 83, the Associated Press reports. According to a statement from his family, Wilder preferred to keep the fact that he was suffering from the disease for the past three years private. “The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity,” his nephew wrote, “but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, ‘There’s Willy Wonka’ would not have to then be 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.”

Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder took his professional name from the playwright Thorton Wilder, whom he admired; he got his start as a theater actor, training at the Bristol Old Vic and the Actors Studio. His role alongside Anne Bancroft in a Broadway production of Mother Courage and Her Children led to a meeting with Bancroft’s future husband, Mel Brooks, which would prove to be one of the defining relationships of Wilder’s professional career. Three years after first reading a Brooks script called Springtime for Hitler, Wilder would be approached out of the blue for a role in the film, and after passing a chemistry test with Zero Mostel, he got the part of Leo Bloom in what became The Producers. It would be Wilder’s big break — he earned an Oscar nomination for the film — and the start of a fruitful creative partnership.

Wilder would go on to star in two more Brooks films, playing a drunken gunslinger in Blazing Saddles and an ambitious scientist in Young Frankenstein, both of which were released in 1974. (He also earned another Oscar nomination for his work with Brooks on the latter’s screenplay.) His most iconic non-Brooks role came three years earlier, when he was cast as Willy Wonka in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As Wilder recalled to the Washington Post, he was the one who came up with the candy magnate’s famous tumbling introduction in the film. “I knew that from then on,” he said, “the audience wouldn’t know if I was lying or telling the truth.”

Over the course of his career, Wilder also appeared in Bonnie and Clyde (his first film role), as well as four movies with Richard Pryor: Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, and Another You. He was married four times, most famously to comedian Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer five years after the couple were married. After her death, Wilder co-founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center at Los Angeles’ Cedars-Sinai hospital, as well as the nonprofit Gilda’s Club. At the time of his death, Wilder was married to speech therapist Karen Boyer, whom he met while researching his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

Gene Wilder Dead at 83