Gene Wilder, the reluctant comedy icon and star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and several Mel Brooks comedies, has died at 83. The actor’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said today that the actor died last night in Stamford, Connecticut from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Wilder, whose career spanned more than 40 years, will be remembered for his performances in everything from Blazing Saddles to The Producers, but for every generation of children since 1971, he will forever be known as the eccentric, cavalier, and fiercely paranoid candy emperor Willy Wonka from the musical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His matter-of-fact delivery of surrealist dialogue (“Because that pipe doesn’t go to the Marshmallow Room, it goes to the Fudge Room!”) and nonchalant disregard for the facts made him an instantly memorable rogue and his performance in Willy Wonka defined the actor’s career for years.
Wilder was also the reliably hilarious star of Mel Brooks’ early comedies. In Brooks’ first directorial effort, The Producers, Wilder played Leo Bloom, the comparatively naive accountant/accomplice to scheming theatre producer Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel). In 1974, Wilder starred in both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein (which Wilder co-wrote, earning him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay), both films that mined comedy from the actor’s wild-eyed commitment, projecting candor even as the laughs drowned out the dialogue.
After co-starring with Richard Pryor in Blazing Saddles, the two made a string of comedies together including Silver Streak and Stir Crazy, but the partnership waned as Pryor’s health declined in the late 1980s. Wilder also starred in a series of films with his wife, Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner, before she died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
Despite his successful career in comedies, Wilder didn’t see himself as a comedian. He also, later in life, didn’t see himself as part of Hollywood. Wilder was frank about what he saw as a decline in creativity in the film business and he largely retired from acting following 1991’s Another You. During a rare public appearance at New York City’s 92Y three years ago, he decried the state of the film industry, which he saw as overly reliant on 3-D and raunchy material. At the time, Wilder left open the possibility that he would return to film for the right project, but aside from a few TV roles (he did a brief stint on Will & Grace in the early aughts), he largely stayed out of acting for the last 15 years of his life.
Wilder is survived by his wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991, and Walker-Pearlman.