Multiple outlets report today that Gene Wilder, the legendary comedian and movie star, passed away yesterday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut at the age of 83. The AP confirms, through Wilder’s nephew, that the iconic performer died from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.
To say that Wilder will be deeply missed would be accurate but a tremendous understatement. A regular colleague of Mel Brooks, Wilder was a comedic performer of the highest caliber, up there with Steve Martin, Bill Murray, and Brooks himself. He started on the stage and on TV but broke out as the repressed and crazed Leo Bloom in Brooks’ near-mythic comedy The Producers, after making the most of a bit part in Arthur Penn‘s equally legendary Bonnie and Clyde.
His comedic energy in The Producers came off as a sort of intensely physical fever. There was an immediate sense of him putting his entire body on the line for a good gag, the way the early masters of physical comedy – who he idolized – did. From there, he wracked up a line of iconic performances: the titular mischief-maker in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the drunk gunslinger Jim in Blazing Saddles, Doctor Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein, Doctor Ross, who lusted after sheep, in Woody Allen‘s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask, and Stanley in Rhinoceros, which saw him partnered again with Zero Mostel after The Producers.
In the 1980s, he paired with the incomparable Richard Pryor in See No Evil, Hear No Evil and Stir Crazy, and directed The Woman in Red and Haunted Honeymoon. He would continue to work into the 1990s and, even more sparingly, in the aughts, but following the passing of the brilliant Gilda Radner, his wife, he took a clear step back from the spotlight. That sensitivity, that intense emotional connection to people and the art of making people laugh, could be felt in everything he did. His performances were often weighed by a balance between outsized ambitions and the emotional and physical damage that those ambitions can cause. He was aware of his power and his talent; in fact, that knowledge often fueled his energetic sense of comedic invention.
Despite this, he clearly never took a single laugh for granted, whether he was making a two-episode appearance on Will & Grace or sparring with Mostel. There was empathy and graciousness in everything he did on screen and, from what I can gather, off screen as well. That’s what will remain beyond the notes of the characters he played and the jokes he so expertly heightened through delivery and gesticulation: the warmth of a human who felt everything and saw the humor in everything without losing the very real emotions behind it all.
Variety posted a statement from Wilder’s nephew for the family which you can read below:
“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. 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. He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”
Here’s a rare TV interview with Wilder on The Merv Griffin Show: