Legendary actor and comedian Gene Wilder passed away yesterday at the age of 83. The legendary film star was a comedic genius, starring in dozens of classic films that spanned the 60’s and 70’s.
Every comedian starting out remembers watching Blazing Saddles or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and remembers Wilder’s perfect comedic timing, the nuances he brought to every role and the passion he brought to his projects. I remember fondly the first time I watched Willy Wonka, either six or seven, as every kid wanted to be like Charlie Bucket, taking a tour of the legendary Wonka factory – the true rags to riches story. But I wanted to be like Willy Wonka himself. And that was all because of what Wilder brought to the role. The way he was passionate about his Oompa Loompa friends, and cared so much about the candy he created. While watching the “remake” version with Johnny Depp, I never could grasp his take on the character, which only helped remind audiences of Wilder’s brilliance.
The thing I admired most about Wilder was his love for his wife Gilda Radner. One of the original “Not Ready for Primetime” stars of Saturday Night Live, Radner was a gift to the comedy world. That was something Wilder found out on the set of Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky. They married a few years later and worked together on a few more films. However, the world lost Radner too soon, as she succumbed to ovarian cancer in 1989. After her death, Wilder helped open Gilda’s Club, a community organization for people living with cancer, their families and friends.
While Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory might be the go to film for many people that recognize Wilder, be sure to take a look at films like Silver Streak or Stir Crazy, that paired comedic legend Richard Pryor with Wilder. The younger generation might have missed Young Frankenstein or Blazing Saddles, two of Mel Brooks’ best films and are already classics. Brooks tweeted today on Wilder’s passing, “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.”
In a day where films tend to be grossly over the top like The Hangover or Hall Pass (not that there isn’t a place for this type of comedy), it seems like the satirical or slapstick comedies Wilder were a part of are a thing of the past. It truly is a dying art form, and something that Wilder was king at. The films Wilder were a part of were funny by being funny, and not needing overtly gross or overly sexual things to happen for a laugh. As he said in 2013 on his state of retirement, it was because of the type of films coming out, “I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good. That’s why I went into writing. It’s not that I wouldn’t act again. I’d say, ‘Give me the script. If it’s something wonderful, I’ll do it.’ But I don’t get anything like that.”
Reports are coming in that Wilder passed away due to complications of Alzheimer’s Disease, something that was kept private since diagnosed three years ago. Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman released the following statement today:
“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.”
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” he added.
“He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to bare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London bistro some years ago that are among each our cherished possessions. She was singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ as he was taken away.”
As Wilder’s Willy Wonka once said, “Time is a precious thing. Never waste it.” He never did.