Comedy great Gene Wilder has died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his family confirmed to ABC News. He was 83.
“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut,” his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, said in a statement. “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”
The statement continued: “The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. 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. It took enough, but not that.”
Wilder, a two-time Oscar nominee, was most known for classic films such as “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and “Blazing Saddles,” but has dozens of films to his credit over his 60-year career.
The comedian, born born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1933, began his career on TV in the early 1960’s, being featured in hit shows like “The Defenders” and on TV Movies like “Death of a Salesman,” before making a name for himself in films like 1967’s “The Producers” as Leo Bloom.
“Willy Wonka” came four years later in 1971 and really cemented Wilder as one of the best in the business.
That same year, Wilder spoke to legendary film critic Roger Ebert about catching the acting bug at a very young age.
“I went to see my sister give a dramatic reading,” he said of when he was just 11 years old. “She’d been taking drama lessons. I walked into the hall, and there was a little stage at the other end, and maybe 150 people, parents mostly, or children like my self. The lights went down slowly … Spotlights hit the stage, and there was my sister, standing there in the middle of the stage, and … everyone was listening to her. Everyone. At that moment I thought, that must be the most beautiful thing in the world, to be able to arrange things so that people have to listen to you.”
Both “Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein” came a few years later, collaborations between Wilder and legendary director Mel Brooks.
Brooks opened up to HitFix two years ago about working with this comedic genius over and over again.
“I met him when he was doing a play on Broadway with my wife, Anne Bancroft,” Brooks told the site. “She played the leading role in a Bertolt Brecht play called ‘Mother Courage and Her Children,’ and he played the chaplain, one among a lot of people in the show … we got to be friends, and he’d come off-stage and he’d say, ‘Why are they laughing at me? I didn’t intend that thing to be funny. Some scenes are serious and some scenes are funny. But I didn’t intend for that to be funny, so why are they laughing?’ And I said, ‘Blame God. Look in the mirror.’ … The straighter he plays it, the funnier he is.”
Wilder was a true collaborator and professional, who is not only know for his work with Brooks, but also with the late, great Richard Pryor.
Starting in the 1970s and lasting two decades, the duo made a handful of films that delighted audiences around the globe. “Another You,” “Stir Crazy” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” are some of the magic the pair made together, along with “Saddles.” They were never afraid to push the envelope while also making people laugh.
“On the first day of filming ‘Silver Streak’ , we didn’t know what it was going to be like,” Wilder told Bobbie Wygant of his first impression of Pryor. “It turned out to be very nice. But it was like two people sending out radar signals and getting them back to say, ‘Who am I with him?'”
The two eventually got comfortable and always said “reacting to each other” was the recipe to their comedic success.
“People laugh [at us],” Wilder said of him and Pryor. “Why? It’s another thing, but they seem to laugh at what we do with each other.” Pryor died in 2005 from a heart attack.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, Wilder slowed down a bit, taking on the TV series “Something Wilder” in 1994 and 1995 before doing a few TV movies like “Alice in Wonderland” in 1999. The man who spent that last few years of his life in Stamford, Connecticu,t was married four times, including to comedian Gilda Radner before her death in 1989.
He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Boyer, and nephew Walker-Pearlman.
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