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Gene Wilder, ‘Willy Wonka’ Star, is Dead at 83

The Oompa Loompas in the 1971 film 'Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory', starring Gene Wilder.When: 07 Jun 2006.

Gene Wilder (center) in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Gene Wilder is dead at age 83. Alzheimer’s Disease was the cause, said his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman.

At 83 years and 78 days, he just outlived actor Leonard Nimoy and painter Edgar Degas, and fell just a few days short of the lifespan of President Thomas Jefferson.

If you were around in the 1970s, you saw Gene Wilder in the movies. He is best remembered as the star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, the bizarre and fantastical 1971 movie based on the bizarre and fantastical Roald Dahl book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. (The movie-makers knew who should get top billing.)

But the frizzy-haired comedian had many lives in the films in those days. First he paired up with Mel Brooks in the frantic hit The Producers (1967) as well as the zany spoofs Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974). Here’s Wilder on how they met:

“I first met Mel Brooks one night after a performance of Brecht’s Mother Courage, a play I was doing on Broadway with Mel’s girlfriend, Anne Bancroft. He had on a beautiful black Russian marine pea jacket. He said: ‘They used to call it a “urine jacket,” but they didn’t sell.’ I thought: Oh, God, this is the guy for me!”

Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor in the film 'Stir Crazy.'

Later still, Wilder made a series of buddy comedies with Richard Pryor, including the train-on-the-loose adventure Silver Streak (1976), the prison comedy Stir Crazy (1980)and the I’m-deaf-you’re-blind comedy See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).

That latter year was kind of the beginning of the end of Wilder’s career, because it was the year his wife Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer. Though he remarried in 1991 (and that marriage lasted until his death), Wilder’s years as a busy actor were over.

Some little-known facts about Gene Wilder:

He was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee and began studying acting at the age of 12. After getting his B.A. from the U. of Iowa in 1955, Wilder enrolled in the Old Vic Theater school in Bristol, where he learned acting technique and fencing. When he returned to the U.S. he taught fencing and did other odd jobs while studying with Herbert Berghof’s HB Studio and at the Actors Studio under Lee Strasberg.

And here’s a great quote at the 1:10 mark:

“In particular, I guess I’ve always wanted to be Cary Grant. Apart from wanting to be Errol Flynn.”

Quite a career. Happy trails, Mr. Wilder, wherever you are.

Now see our full Gene Wilder biography »

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