It’s with great sadness that we report that 2016 has claimed another legend. Gene Wilder, star Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory has passed away today due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Born Jerome Silberman in 1933, Wilder first hit the acting world with a series of television appearances in the 60’s, most notably as Bernard, Willy Loman’s son, in a production of Death of a Salesman. In 1967, he made the transition to film in a role in Bonnie and Clyde before he hit it big co-starring in Mel Brooks’ The Producers opposite Zero Mostel. His performance as Leo Bloom—a role later made famous by Matthew Broderick in a Broadway musical, which later became a film itself—earned him a nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Academy Awards.
It also kicked off a long running collaboration between Brooks and the actor, most notably as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the notorious Victor from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in the comedic horror spoof Young Frankenstein in 1974. There, he earned yet another nomination from the Academy, this time for Best Adapted Screenplay for the script, which he co-wrote with Brooks.
That year also the release of Blazing Saddles, another legendary collaboration with Brooks. While initially not as critically acclaimed as Young Frankenstein, that film has grown in stature over the years to be remembered as one of the best works from both Wilder and his collaborator.
Still, the actor is, perhaps, best remembered for his role as Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s 1971 musical Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, adapted from the Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. There, the actor fully embodied the alternately creepy and whimsical chocolatier, to both the delight and horror of generations of movie audiences.
In the late 70’s Wilder formed a new partnership with comedian Richard Pryor with Silver Streak, and the two starred in four movies throughout the 80’s with Stir Crazy and See No Evil, Hear No Evil and into 90’s with Another You.
Wilder was preceded in death by his third wife, Gilda Radner, in 1989. Wilder met the SNL alum while filming an Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky 1981. Their relationship grew even as Radner was married to SNL band leader G.E. Smith until the actress divorced her husband and married Wilder in 1984. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986.
In 1999, Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which he confirmed to be in complete remission in 2005. He’d been semi-retired from acting over the last few years, turning his eye to authorship. In 2003, he published the memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger. He’s also produced a collection of short stories and several novels, the most recent of which, Something to Remember You By, in 2013.