Gene Wilder, star of enduring classics including Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, died Monday August 29, 2016 at the age of 83. He passed away at his home in Connecticut due to complications from Alzheimer’s.
His nephew revealed that Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago, and chose to keep his condition private so that young fans would not be upset, commenting that, “[Wilder] simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.” Thankfully, Wilder remained lucid and able to recognize loved ones until the end of his life. His nephew went on to reveal that Wilder passed away holding the hands of his family members and listening to his favorite song, Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’.
Wilder was best known as an actor in film and on television. He brought his signature style (neurotic yet gentle, with a quiet undertone of hysteria) to many roles, collaborating with directors like Mel Brooks and actors such as Richard Pryor on a variety of projects. Though some of his movies, including The World’s Greatest Lover and See No Evil, Hear No Evil did badly both critically and financially, Wilder’s acting talent was always evident. He also acted in hits such as Silver Streak, The Producers, and Stir Crazy.
Born in Milwaukee as Jerome Silberman, Wilder lived with his mother, Jeanne Baer, and father, William J. Silberman, a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Later in life, Wilder often stated that he identified as culturally Jewish, but was non-religious in his beliefs. He reputedly discovered an interest in acting around the age of 8 when he attempted to make his mother laugh after her rheumatic fever diagnosis.
In 1946, his parents sent him to Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, where he was bullied and abused for his Jewish heritage. He returned home, and eventually graduated from Milwaukee’s Washington High School. Wilder studied at the University of Iowa, earning a degree in Communication and Theater Arts.
He actually began his acting career in theatre. He achieved mild success acting in productions such as Roots and The Complaisant Lover before transitioning to film. Gene Wilder became his stage name, inspired by Thornton Wilder, the author of Our Town, and Eugene Gant, star of the novel Look Homeward Angel.
He was drafted in 1956, and became a paramedic in the Valley Forge Army Hospital’s Department of Psychiatry and Neurology in Pennsylvania. Many people believe that this, along with some of his own experiences with neurosis, greatly influenced his acting style.
In addition to acting in a variety of movies, Wilder also wrote screenplays, and he wrote or directed quite a few of the movies he acted in. Perhaps his most famous project is Young Frankenstein, which he cowrote with Mel Brooks.
After stepping back from the spotlight, Wilder started writing books, including his own memoir: a book on his late wife, Gilda Radner, and her experience with ovarian cancer. Additionally, he wrote three novels and a collection of stories. Wilder noted that his retirement from acting was due to the lack of quality scripts presented to him, and also stated, “I don’t mean to sound – I don’t want it to come out funny, but I don’t like show business. […] I love acting in films. I love it.”
In recent days, tributes have poured forth from actors and directors he collaborated with, showcasing the immense impact his work and his kind personality had on those who knew him.
By Kahlo Smith