LOS ANGELES (CNS) – Tributes poured in from the entertainment world today for actor Gene Wilder, the wild-haired comic actor best known for originating the role of Willy Wonka and for his starring turns in the Mel Brooks comedies “Young Frankenstein,” “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers.”
Wilder, 83, died in Stamford, Connecticut, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, according to his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman. He said Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years ago.
“The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family,” according to a statement from Walker- Pearlman. “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.”
A native of Milwaukee, Wilder — born Jerry Silberman — began acting in high school and earned a theater degree from the University of Iowa before studying the craft in England. He later served in the U.S. Army, then returned to acting upon his discharge, appearing in plays on and off Broadway.
It was in one of those plays in the early 1960s that he appeared opposite actress Anne Bancroft, who introduced him to her future husband, Mel Brooks. Wilder and Brooks would go on to create some of the movie world’s most memorable films and characters.
“Gene Wilder – one of the truly great talents of our time,” Brooks wrote on Twitter. “He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship.”
For many, however, Wilder will be best remembered for his starring role as eccentric candy mogul Willy Wonka in the 1971 film “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” which received a lukewarm reception on its release but grew over the years into a film classic, thanks in part to its catchy musical score that included songs such as “I’ve Got a Golden Ticket” and Wilder’s sentimental “Pure Imagination.”
Producer Phil Rosenthal called Wilder “a true comic genius,” adding, “Loved him in everything.”
Oscar-winning actor Russell Crowe added: “I saw Blazing Saddles 7 times at the cinema with my school friends. … Gene Wilder you were a genius. Rest in peace.”
Actor Albert Brooks said Wilder was “as funny as they come.” Wilder met comic actress Gilda Radner on the sent of “Hanky Panky” in 1982, and they married two years later. Radner died of ovarian cancer five years later. Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1999.
Wilder earned two Oscar nominations in his career — a supporting actor nod for “The Producers” and an adapted screenwriting nomination with Brooks for “Young Frankenstein.”
He won an Emmy Award in 2003 for his final screen appearance — a guest role on “Will & Grace.”
“The greatest comedic mind of my childhood is now gone,” actor/comedian Josh Gad said via Twitter. “RIP Gene Wilder & thank you (for) your pure imagination. This one hits hard.”
Wilder was married for the past 25 years to Karen Boyer. “He was 83 and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember,” according to Walker-Pearlman.
“As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald.”