Legendary actor and comedic genius Gene Wilder has passed beyond the realm of human understanding.
According to Variety, Wilder died today (Monday, Aug. 29) at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, at the age of 83. The cause of death was complications from Alzheimer’s disease. His death was confirmed by his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman.
To genre fans, Wilder is best known for two roles: He played the eccentric title candy maker in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, delivering a portrayal that became iconic to generations of children for decades afterward. And three years later, he played the grandson of the world's most famous mad scientist in Mel Brooks' classic Young Frankenstein (which he co-wrote with Brooks), his character initially calling himself "Frederick Fronkensteen" to avoid the family connection.
But Wilder's career extended far beyond those two performances. He also worked with Brooks on The Producers and Blazing Saddles and did a series of team-ups with Richard Pryor that included Silver Streak, Stir Crazy, See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. He also directed several films in which he starred, including The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother, The World’s Greatest Lover and The Woman in Red, which also starred his then-wife Gilda Radner.
When Radner was stricken with cancer in the mid-'80s, Wilder largely retreated from work to care for her until her death in 1989. Devastated by the loss, he only worked intermittently after that, starring in his own sitcom in 1994 (Something Wilder) and winning an Emmy in 2003 for a recurring guest stint on Will and Grace. He was nominated twice for an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actor on The Producers and for the screenplay of Young Frankenstein, and also wrote novels and story collections in his later years.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee and began studying acting at the age of 12. He made his professional debut in an off-Broadway play in 1961 and worked in theater and TV for several years before scoring his first notable film role in 1967's Bonnie and Clyde. He is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, and his nephew.
In a statement, his nephew explained why Wilder's struggle with Alzheimer's had not been disclosed until now:
"We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones -- this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him 'there’s Willy Wonka,' would not have to be then 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."
On a personal note, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Young Frankenstein (and to a lesser extent, Blazing Saddles) were two of the most memorable movies of this writer's younger years. The former is right up as one of the the great children's fantasy films, and a huge part of that is because of Mr. Wilder's delightful, frightening, hilarious and yet sharp-edged performance. Young Frankenstein is perhaps the greatest horror spoof of all time. Gene Wilder brought a subtle mix of neurosis, craziness and genuine warmth to his roles, which made him one of the most beloved comic actors of all time. Thank you, sir, and don't worry -- your work will keep people smiling for years to come.