Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka,’ dead at 83

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(CNN) — Gene Wilder, who brought a wild-eyed desperation to a series of memorable and iconic comedy roles in the 1970s and 1980s, has died, his lawyer, Eric Weissmann, said.

He was 83.

Wilder is best known for his collaborations with director Mel Brooks, starring as the stressed-out Leo Bloom in Brooks’ breakout 1967 film “The Producers,” and later in the monster movie spoof “Young Frankenstein.” He also portrayed a boozing gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles.”

For many people, Wilder might be best remembered for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” playing the mysterious candy tycoon in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book.

In a statement to CNN on Monday, Brooks called Wilder “one of the truly great talents of our time.”

“He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship,” Brooks wrote.

Wilder died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, which he struggled with for three years, his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement to CNN.

Wilder chose not to disclose his illness, the statement added.

“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said.

In the years after “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Wilder continued to star in numerous comedies, with less consistent success. That included several films with Richard Pryor, including “Stir Crazy” and “Silver Streak,” as well as solo vehicles like “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which he also directed.

In a 2005 interview with CNN, Wilder discussed how he met Brooks, having been cast in a play opposite the director’s then-girlfriend, Anne Bancroft.

“That led to ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Young Frankenstein,’ because I was miscast in a play,” Wilder said. “And it changed my life.”

He said he was happy to be cast in primarily comedic roles throughout his acting career.

“For every dramatic role, there are 14 other guys who will do it better than me, always,” Wilder told CNN.

He was married to “Saturday Night Live” regular Gilda Radner for five years until her death in 1989.

When asked in the same CNN interview if he thought the public expected him to mourn Radner indefinitely, Wilder said he felt some people did.

Then added, “If you found happiness, real happiness, then it would be stupid to waste your life mourning. And if you asked Gilda, she’d say, don’t be a jerk. You know, go out, have fun. Wake up and smell the coffee.”

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Wilder.

Wilder’s friends, co-workers and admirers were quick to pay tribute to the actor on Monday after the news of his death.

“Bless you for all these years of laughter and love, such warmth and humanity,” wrote film critic Leonard Maltin.

Debra Messing, former star of “Will & Grace,” a show on which Wilder guest-starred, said, “A man who lit up the world with his joy and genius. I can’t say what it meant to act with him and get to know his heart.”


(CNN) — Gene Wilder mastered the art of the comic nervous breakdown, the character that always seemed seconds away from a shrieking, totally manic fit.

From his breakthrough part in “The Producers,” Wilder excelled at moments of explosive rage or sheer desperation. Working with Mel Brooks, he provided the perfect expression of Brooks’ directing style, which reveled in over-the-top absurdity.

Wilder had also worked in more serious roles, and he could ground his zaniness in a way that gave them heft. That was certainly true of perhaps his most iconic performance apart from his collaborations with Brooks, playing the title character in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

He also turned out to have a strong on-screen rapport with comedian Richard Pryor, with whom he co-starred in multiple films, most memorably “Stir Crazy” and “Silver Streak.”

Wilder left behind an abundance of comedies destined to be watched and re-watched for years to come. But in terms of his signature bits and movies, no list would be complete without these entries:

The Producers (1967)

Wilder’s stressed-out accountant Leo Bloom turned out to be the perfect foil for Zero Mostel’s grifter producer Max Bialystock, which included devolving into a screaming mess when deprived of his “blue blanket.”

Blazing Saddles (1974)

Wilder was a late addition in the role of the Waco Kid, the former gunslinger who explains how he had quite a reputation (“I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille”) before turning around to face “a 6-year-old kid.” The description of the encounter didn’t go from there quite the way one might have expected.

Young Frankenstein (1974)

For many comedy enthusiasts, “Young Frankenstein” is the most inspired of Brooks and Wilder’s films together, with a multitude of hilarious scenes. But none is funnier than Dr. Frankenstein’s crazed reaction when informed by his assistant Igor (Marty Feldman) that he gave the Monster the brain of someone named “Abby Normal.”

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask (1972)

Wilder appeared in just one vignette within Woody Allen’s comedy using the title of the bestselling book, but it was a genuinely bizarre one, as a doctor who gradually falls in love with a sheep.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In perfect contrast to his other, showier roles, Wilder’s brilliant take on the chocolate maven is more about his wonderful restraint, from gently crooning the song “Pure Imagination” to delivering a series of droll one-liners, among them his insincere warning to misbehaving children: “Stop. Don’t. Come back.”

Unlike those kids, when it came to comic hysteria, Gene Wilder was a good egg.