To younger generations, the name Gene Wilder may not garner an immediate reaction. But mention the popular fantasy flick Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and you’ll find excited expressions and recollections of childhood memories. The 1971 film is perhaps best known and remembered for titular character Willy Wonka, played by American stage and film actor, screenwriter, director and novelist Gene Wilder, who passed away from complications from Alzheimer’s disease on Aug. 29 at the age of 83. Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder was known in the movie industry for his hilarious performances and whimsical personality. He often played eccentric but charming characters, which were made all the more unconventional by his recognizably mellow voice and piercing blue eyes.
Wilder’s career started on the stage, where he performed on and off Broadway. It was during this time that he met director Mel Brooks, who soon became a lifelong business partner and friend.
His first on-screen performance was a small but memorable role, to which he added his own comedic genius, as he portrayed the kidnapped undertaker in Bonnie and Clyde in 1967. From then on, Wilder had no trouble finding work in Hollywood, appearing in some of Brooks’ most successful films.
Wilder did much more than act–he created. He began to co-write screenplays with Brooks, and it was his idea to turn the famous gothic novel Frankenstein into a modern comedy. Young Frankenstein got him nominated for an Oscar and won him a slew of additional awards. He also worked with Brooks on the popular Blazing Saddles, which featured popular yet controversial comedian, Richard Pryor.
To the world, Wilder was a hilariously successful figure in entertainment. He could write and act, in addition to even trying his hand at directing. Underneath it all, however, Wilder was a sensitive soul who had been through a great deal during his childhood and was still experiencing hardships.
At school, Wilder had been bullied for being Jewish, and at home his mother was physically and mentally unstable. In his adulthood, Wilder struggled with his inner demons. Visits to a psychotherapist became a way he could express his feelings concerning not only sexual repression, but also an embarrassing compulsion to pray aloud to God at inappropriate times. He said that it was on stage or acting in movies that he actually felt free from all of it.
Later, his third wife and “Saturday Night Live” actress Gilda Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which she eventually died from. One year after her death and the creation of Gilda’s Club—an ovarian cancer detection center—Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Wilder went into remission in 2005.
It was around this time that Wilder began to withdraw from Hollywood. He took on smaller roles and focused more on writing, eventually announcing in 2003 his official retirement from acting.
“I like show, but I don’t like the business,” Wilder said. Instead, he turned to the quiet life of novel writing.
Not only did he prove his worth in show business, but Wilder also possessed great inner strength. No matter what maladies he or the people close to him faced, he maintained his positive attitude and desire to make people laugh.
Wilder’s roles allowed him to act as a wide variety of characters—a reluctant scientist, a bumbling undertaker, a mysterious chocolatier–and put him into contact with some of the most noteworthy people. He himself credited all his success to one simple rule: “Just be real and it will be funnier.”