The Big Read: Gene Wilder - the life of the man who was Willy Wonka

• Gene Wilder has died age 83, his family announce
• He died from complications linked to Alzheimer's
• Star of Mel Brooks comedies and Willy Wonka film
• Twice Oscar nominated for The Producers and Young Frankenstein

Gene Wilder, whose wild curls and startling blue eyes brought a frantic air to roles in the movies "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles," has died at the age of 83, his family announced.

Wilder, whose best work came in collaborations with director-writer Mel Brooks and actor Richard Pryor, died at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer's disease, the family said in a statement.


Wilder's nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said the actor had chosen to keep his illness secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.

Wilder's barely contained hysteria made him a go-to lead for director-writer Mel Brooks, who cast him in "Blazing Saddles," "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers" in the 1960s and '70s.

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Besides his classic collaborations with Brooks, Wilder paired memorably with comedian Richard Pryor in hits "Silver Streak" and "Stir Crazy."

Wilder also was active in promoting ovarian cancer awareness and treatment after his wife, "Saturday Night Live" comedienne Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984, died of the disease in 1989.

He helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founded Gilda's Club, a support organization that has branches throughout the United States.

Brooks noted Wilder's death by tweeting, "Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship."

A favourite with children everywhere

Wilder became a favourite with children everywhere when he created the zany title role in the film Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory (1971).

Based on Roald Dahl's book Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, the musical fantasy gave Wilder the perfect platform as the eccentric confectionery maestro, whom he played with sparky cynicism, a smile constantly tugging at the corners of his mouth as he devises one devilish scheme after another.

Wilder imbued his performance with an element of grand guignol, giving the film a macabre as well as an exuberant feel as Willy Wonka conducts a group of children around his dream chocolate factory; the film was shot in Germany and the factory exterior was actually the Munich gasworks.

Although Willy Wonka defined Wilder as the quizzical, frizzy-haired comedy actor with windmilling arms and an air of demented babbling panic, his career both on- and off-camera was a patchy affair, with as many misses as hits; consequently his output was judged disappointingly uneven.

A palpable hit, however, was Blazing Saddles (1974), the spoof Western written and produced by his friend Mel Brooks, in which Wilder featured as the alcoholic former gunslinger the Waco Kid, a part he played by default after two older actors originally lined up for it pulled out. His next film, directed by Brooks, Young Frankenstein (also 1974), was another parody, this time of early horror films.

As well as coming up with the idea, Wilder collaborated with Brooks on the screenplay and also starred as the brain surgeon descended from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein of literary renown.

His partnership with the black actor Richard Pryor began in 1976 with Silver Streak, a parody of train mysteries like North By North-West, noted for its sensational finale - it was chosen for the Royal Film Performance in London attended by the Queen Mother in 1977 - and continued with Stir Crazy (1980), a raucous, vulgar comedy that did well at the box office. But the pairing faltered with the abysmal romp See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and disinegrated after Another You (1991), a third-rate farce that sank with all hands.

Gene Wilder in 1991. Photo / AP
Gene Wilder in 1991. Photo / AP

On the stage, he made his British debut in Neil Simon's Laughter On The 23rd Floor (Queen's, 1996), in which his permanently-glazed, spaced-out weariness proved, in the words of Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph, "a dream of a role".

Low-key and reflective in private, Wilder admitted to writing "emotionally autobiographical" screenplays, but his serious offscreen manner contrasted with the manic exertions popular with his fans. "My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria," he was once quoted as saying. "After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit."

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11 1934 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where his Jewish father, who had migrated from Russia at the age of 11, made miniature whisky bottles and imported novelties and souvenirs. His mother, of Polish descent, suffered a heart attack when Jerry was eight, leaving her a semi-invalid; he devised comedy skits to cheer her up.

After Washington High School, Milwaukee, he enrolled at the University of Iowa in 1951, acting in student plays and appearing in summer repertory during the holidays. As an actor, he had originally inclined to comedy parts, but inspired by Lee J Cobb in the original Broadway production of Death Of A Salesman (1949-50) he refocused on more serious roles.

In 1955, after graduating with an arts degree, he moved to England and joined the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol where he learned judo, fencing, gymnastics and voice control, but left before studying acting technique. On his return to America, he served in the US Army, working in a military hospital neuropsychiatric ward by day and attending drama school in New York at the weekends.

On his discharge, and having taken the professional name Gene Wilder, he joined the Actors' Studio and studied method acting with Lee Strasberg, financing himself by working as a chauffeur and toy salesman as well as by giving instruction in fencing, a skill acquired in Bristol which also led to his being hired as fencing choreographer in productions of Twelfth Night and Macbeth in 1961. In the same year he made his off-Broadway debut as Frankie Bryant in Arnold Wesker's Roots.

His first Broadway appearance that November was as the comic hotel valet in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, a role that earned him an award for the most promising newcomer and turned him again towards comedy parts. In 1963, appearing in another Broadway production, of Brecht's Mother Courage And Her Children, he met Mel Brooks, who each evening called backstage to collect the play's star, Anne Bancroft, whom he later married. Brooks promised Wilder a part in a film he intended to write.

This turned out to be the role of the frenetic accountant Leo Bloom in The Producers (1969) for which Wilder was nominated for an Oscar as best supporting actor. In the meantime he had made his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) as the terrified undertaker Eugene Grizzard, kidnapped by the outlaw couple and whisked away on a joyride, a fleeting cameo noted for its timing and restraint.

In The Producers, Wilder's hilarious performance as the accountant was the one that established his screen persona, that of a low-key, well-balanced person transformed by the smallest crisis into a hysterical bundle of nerves. In Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972), one of several films in which he played variations on this theme, he was a doctor who falls in love with a sheep, taking it to a hotel room and ordering wine, caviar and some green grass.

He moved into directing and screenwriting with another spoof, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), and The World's Greatest Lover (1977), both stylish pictures laden with quirky humour which saluted the style of his mentor Mel Brooks. Wilder's first wife, the television comedienne Gilda Radner, featured in two of his films from the mid-Eighties, The Woman In Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986), both of which were critically panned.

In 2005 Wilder produced a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art; a collection of stories, What Is This Thing Called Love? (2010); and three novels: My French Whore (2007), The Woman Who Wouldn't (2008) and Something to Remember You By (2013).

Contents Gene Wilder married, in 1960, the actress and playwright Mary Mercier, with whom he had appeared in a New York production of Roots. When the marriage ended in divorce, he married, in 1967, Mary Joan Schutz, adopting her daughter from an earlier marriage. Wilder's third wife, Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984, died from cancer in 1989 aged 42.

His fourth wife, Karen Webb (née Boyer), survives him.

Wilder the 'father figure' of the Willy Wonka family

Gene Wilder was the "father figure" of the Willy Wonka family, according to the actress who played spoiled child Veruca Salt in the hit film.

Julie Dawn Cole, who is originally from Guildford but now lives in Hampshire, played the young girl everyone loves to hate in the movie that Wilder may be most remembered for.

The 1971 film Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, which brings Roald Dahl's novel to life, follows lovable Charlie who clinches a golden ticket to gain access to the enchanting factory - and is joined by other lucky children including the pampered Veruca Salt.

Actress Cole said she and the other Willy Wonka "kids" - the actors who played the children in the film - had received a message from Wilder around a year or so ago in which he sent "lots of love".


She told the Press Association: "We knew that Gene wasn't in great health but he's a very private man, very dignified, so it's not entirely a surprise, but it's still a very, very sad day."

Cole, who was 12 when the movie was filmed, said she and her Wonka co-stars keep in touch and see each other at least once a year.

"We're all very, very sad. He was very much the father figure of our family," she said.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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