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Remembering Gene Wilder: the Evergreen says good-bye to Willy Wonka

DANIEL ANDERSON | Evergreen movie columnist

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Iconic American comic actor Gene Wilder, star of “Willy Wonka,” died at age 83. According to the New York Times, Wilder’s nephew reported on Monday that the actor and writer died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, from Alzheimer’s disease.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933, he is better known by his stage name Gene Wider.

Wilder studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, and was a member of Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. He then would be accepted to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England.

Wilder aspired to make similar impacts to the likes of Charlie Chaplin. The Charlie Chaplin film “City Lights” made the biggest impression on him as an actor. He had one rule for comedy: “Don’t try to make it funny, try to make it real. I’m an actor, not a clown.”

His motto was always felt whenever he performed. Wilder began as a talented stage actor. He made strides on Broadway before a silver screen debut as a kidnapped undertaker in Arthur Penn’s notable crime drama, “Bonnie and Clyde” in 1967.

Mel Brooks then casted Wilder in his revered role of Leo Bloom in the 1968 film comedy turned Broadway musical “The Producers.” The character of Bloom earned Mr. Wilder an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He’d receive a second Oscar nomination for his co-writing of “Young Frankenstein” with Mel Brooks.

In 1971, Wilder would take on his most beloved role yet, Willy Wonka. Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” was not an instant hit, but became a gem over the years, even earning Wilder a Golden Globe nomination.

His role as Willy Wonka was so cherished by him and many others that he did not want the world to worry about his illness.

In an article from Variety, Wilder’s nephew stated: “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.”

Wilder also made television appearances. He starred in 1962’s “The Sound of Hunting,” “The Interrogators,” a 1966 television production of “Death of a Salesman” and a television movie “Thursday’s Game.” There was a brief stint at his flagship sitcom “Something Wilder” in 1994, and an Emmy award-winning guest role on “Will and Grace” in 2003.

He had a special talent for zany or neurotic roles. In an interview with Time magazine in 1970, he was quoted saying “My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria. After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.” One of his weirder roles was in Woody Allen’s spoof “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex*” as a doctor that falls in love with a sheep.

Richard Pryor was another famous contemporary that Wilder got to work alongside. They co-starred in 1976’s “Silver Streak,” 1980’s “Stir Crazy” grossing more than $100 million, 1989’s “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and 1991’s “Another You.”

Wilder married four times. His most prominent marriage was with Gilda Radner, an original cast member of Saturday Night Live. Radner and Wilder met on the set of “Hanky Panky.” They would go on and star together in two other films: “The Woman in Red,” written and directed by Wilder, and “Haunted Honeymoon.”

Radner eventually grew ill with ovarian cancer, and Wilder devoted his time to her care, even writing a book called Gilda’s Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer, until her death in 1989. Wilder would later marry his last wife Karen Boyer in 1991.

In his retirement, Wilder spent time painting watercolors, participating in charity events, watching movies and authoring other books. A few celebrities have expressed their condolences on Twitter.

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

I, myself, will remember him fondly as Willy Wonka. He truly was a man with pure imagination and someone that defied explanation.

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Remembering Gene Wilder: the Evergreen says good-bye to Willy Wonka