The world has lost a bit of it's "Pure Imagination" today, as Gene Wilder has passed into the great chocolate factory in the sky. The actor, whose films included the lauded Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers, was heralded for his manic portrayals of some of film's most eccentric personalities. He died in Connecticut on August 28th, 2016 as a result of complications from Alzheimer's Disease.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1933. At age 11 he saw his sister perform, and caught an itch for the craft, eventually starting to study after his 13th birthday. After getting his legs at the Old Vic in Bristol, England, Wilder was drafted into the army in 1956. Wanting to be close to New York to study his craft, he took the post of Paramedic at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania.
The role that brought Wilder into the eyes of his future benefactor, Mel Brooks, was that of the Chaplain in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children. Brookes nonchalantly told Wilder that he was writing a script with him in mind. Wilder may have chalked Brooks' statement as hyperbole, but Brooks eventually handed him the script for The Producers, in which Wilder was to play the frantically-nervous accountant Leo Bloom. Wilder, according to an interview Brooks did with Roy Plomley on BBC Radio's Desert Island Discs, broke into tears and embraced Brooks for giving him the opportunity of a lifetime. (Wilder also appeared on Desert Island Discs himself in 1997)
From there, he appeared in other Mel Brooks movies, including Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. After Producers, he played the role that made him a household name: Willy Wonka. His blend of eccentric deviousness and all-out farce was a hit with audiences, as the movie became a cult classic that is still loved to this day.
Moving into the 1980's, his film roles trickled as he met Gilda Radner. He went on to marry her in 1984 and, though the couple wanted to start a family, she miscarried several times. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and died in 1989. Wilder, until the end, said that he always thought she'd pull through. After her death, Wilder all but devoted his life to cancer charity work, founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center. Wilder also championed Gilda's Club, a support group to raise awareness of cancer that still exists today. Wilder wrote a book in 1998 called Gilda's Disease, where he chronicled his life with her and her disease. (He also wrote 5 novels and memoirs in subsequent years.)
Wilder, to me, will best be remembered for being a gentle soul. His characters may have been manic but, to hear him speak, you are struck by how well-spoken and genuine he was. Actors often shield themselves behind a persona, but Wilder was a true artist in the respect that he was himself off camera.
I tip my hat to this wonderful man and will always remember him fondly. And, I think, the best way of memorializing him is to share this brilliant man's work as the only natural conclusion to these words:
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