Willy Wonka actor Gene Wilder dies

Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder

Willy Wonka star Gene Wilder has died aged 83.

The Hollywood actor, known for roles in comedy classics such as Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles, has been hailed a “comic genius” and one of the “great talents” of his generation.

Wilder’s nephew said he died earlier this month in Stamford, Connecticut, having suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

His friend Mel Brooks, who directed The Producers, the classic comedy in which Wilder starred, said on Twitter: “Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

Comedian and presenter Dara O Briain tweeted: “Gene Wilder has died. Sad news, but such a life well lived. For me, Young Frankenstein just pips Wonka, but so many wonderful performances.

“Expecting to hear people were fans of Blazing Saddles, Producers and Stir Crazy, but amazing number going for See No Evil, Hear No Evil.”

Stephen Fry tweeted: “Farewell #GeneWilder, comic genius. Thank you for all those happy happy hours.”

One of Wilder’s best known films is Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, in which he plays Roald Dahl’s enchanting candy man.

Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but millions knew him from his work in the movies, especially his collaborations with Mel Brooks on The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

The last film - with Wilder playing a California-born descendant of the mad scientist, insisting that his name is pronounced “Frahn-ken-Shteen” - was co-written by Brooks and Wilder.

“One of the truly great talents of our time,” Mel Brooks tweeted. “He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”

With his unkempt hair and big, buggy eyes, Wilder was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only a madman such as Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in Young Frankenstein or bilking Broadway in The Producers. Brooks would call him “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us”.

But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozy gunslinger in Blazing Saddles or the charming candy man in the children’s favourite Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. His craziest role: the therapist having an affair with a sheep in Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.

He was close friends with Richard Pryor and their contrasting personas - Wilder uptight, Pryor loose - were ideal for comedy.

They co-starred in four films: Silver Streak, ‘Stir Crazy, ‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Another You. And they created several memorable scenes, particularly when Pryor provided Wilder with directions on how to “act black” as they tried to avoid police in Silver Streak.

In 1968, Wilder received an Oscar nomination for his work in Brooks’ The Producers. He played the introverted Leo Bloom, an accountant who discovers the liberating joys of greed and corruption as he and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) conceive a Broadway flop titled Springtime For Hitler and plan to flee with the money raised for the show’s production.

Matthew Broderick played Wilder’s role in the 2001 Broadway stage revival of the show.

Though they collaborated on film, Wilder and Brooks met through the theatre. Wilder was in a play with Brooks’ then-future wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the pair backstage in 1963.

Wilder, a Milwaukee native, was born Jerome Silberman on June 11 1935. His father was a Russian emigre, his mother was of Polish descent. When he was six, Wilder’s mother suffered a heart attack that left her a semi-invalid. He soon began improvising comedy skits to entertain her, the first indication of his future career.

He started taking acting classes at age 12 and continued performing and taking lessons through college. In 1961, Wilder became a member of Lee Strasberg’s prestigious Actor’s Studio in Manhattan.

That same year, he made both his off-Broadway and Broadway debuts. He won the Clarence Derwent Award, given to promising newcomers, for the Broadway work in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover.

He used his new name, Gene Wilder, for the off-Broadway and Broadway roles.

He lifted the first name from the character Eugene Gant in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Back, Homeward Angel, while the last name was clipped from playwright Thornton Wilder. A key break came when he co-starred with Bancroft in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage, and met Brooks, her future husband.

“I was having trouble with one little section of the play, and he gave me tips on how to act.

“He said, ‘That’s a song and dance. He’s proselytising about communism. Just skip over it, sing and dance over it, and get on to the good stuff.’ And he was right,” Wilder later explained.

Before starring in The Producers, he had a small role as the hostage of gangsters in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde. He peaked in the mid-1970s with the twin Brooks hits Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

He went on to write several screenplays and direct several films. In 1982, while making the generally forgettable Hanky-Panky, he fell in love with co-star Gilda Radner. They were married in 1984, and co-starred in two Wilder-penned films: The Lady In Red and Haunted Honeymoon.

After Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989, Wilder spent much of his time after promoting cancer research.

He opened a support facility for cancer patients called Gilda’s Place. In 1991, he testified before Congress about the need for increased testing for cancer.

Wilder is survived by his wife, Karen, whom he married in 1991.