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Gene Wilder, Star Of Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, Dies At 83

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Gene Wilder, who regularly stole the show in films such as Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, The Producers and The Woman In Red, died Monday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83.

His nephew, Jordan Walker – Pearlman said in a statement:

“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. 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 continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks Photo Credit: Gregory Pace/ Deadline
Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks
Photo Credit: Gregory Pace/ Deadline

Born on 11 June, 1933 in Wisconsin (USA), Wilder began his career with a stint in theatre.He forayed into cinema with Bonnie And Clyde in which he played a hostage. But, Wilder’s official break in Hollywood was as Leopold Bloom in the 1968 film The Producers for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

He collaborated with comedy writer/director Mel Brooks for several of his films, including 1974’s Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, which Wilder co-wrote, garnering the pair an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Wilder often portrayed eccentric roles ranging from the man who fell in love with a sheep in Woody Allen’s spoof Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex to the crazy writer serving a 125-year prison sentence in Stir Crazy (1980). His breakthrough role was perhaps as Willy Wonka, the chocolate factory owner based on Roald Dahl’s children’s book Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. While the film wasn’t an immediate hit, the film continues to be regarded as one of Wilder’s best and the better adaptations of the book.

With an experience in stage acting, Wilder was a comic with techniques he often employed in his works. One of his techniques he revealed in a 1971 interview with Roger Ebert, where he spoke of ‘lying’ in acting. “Here’s what I mean by lying,” he said. “We all grew up on movies with scenes where the actor is lying, and you know he’s lying, but he wants to make sure you know it’s a lie, and so he overacts and all but winks at you, and everybody in the world except for the girl he’s talking to knows he’s lying.” When asked where the ‘lying’ comes in, he said, “What good is a character who’s always winking at the audience to let them in on the secret?”

Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder Photo credits: Mashable
Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder
Photo credits: Mashable

Wilder was married twice, first to Mary Mercier and then Mary Joan Schutz. Both ended in divorce. However, in 1982, he met sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live’s comedian Gilda Radner when they were both cast in the suspense comedy Hanky Panky. Of their first year of living together, he wrote: “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.” The couple married on September 14, 1984 in the south of France.

The couple wanted to have children, but Radner suffered miscarriages, and doctors could not determine the problem. After experiencing severe fatigue and suffering from pain in her upper legs on the set of Haunted Honeymoon, Radner sought medical treatment. Following a number of false diagnoses, she was found to have ovarian cancer in October 1986. She succumbed to cancer on 20 May, 1989. On several occasions, Wilder had expressed his devastation over Radner’s death, even years later.

In memory of his wife, Wilder helped to found an ovarian cancer detection center in her name, in Los Angeles, and Gilda’s Club, a network of support centers for women with cancer. He also contributed to a book, Gilda’s Disease (1998), with Dr. M. Steven Piver.

Soon enough, Wilder himself developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. With chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, he was in remission by 2005.

In the early ’90s Wilder appeared in his last film Funny About Love. In addition to a failed TV series Something Wilder in 1994, he wrote and starred in the A&E mystery telepics The Lady in Question and Murder in a Small Town in 1999. He last acted in a couple of episodes of sit-com Will and Grace in 2002-03 as Mr Stein, winning his only Emmy. In the last five years, Wilder’s picture as Willy Wonka had been the subject of several internet memes, with jokes high on sarcasm.

Wilder is now survived by his wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991, and a daughter from an earlier marriage. His sister died in January.

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Shocked by his sudden passing, the film fraternity paid tributes to the Willy Wonka star.

Actress Carol Kane, who starred alongside the actor in The World’s Greatest Lover, said:

“He lived a quiet life for quite a while. It wasn’t a showbiz life. It was very private. But what a great, great life he led. We’re all so lucky to have known him in whatever way that we did.”

Willy Wonka star Julie Dawn Cole, who played spoilt little girl Veruca Salt, has spoken of her shock following the death of co-star Gene Wilder:

 “We knew he was getting older and becoming frail, but it’s still a shock. You expect Mr Wonker to go on forever. He was a lovely, lovely man – very warm, gentle and sincere.”

Mel Brooks also paid tribute to his late friend on Twitter.

Along with Actress Goldie Hawn, TV Host Conan O’Brien and Actor Ben Stiller.

Feature Image Courtesy: ABC.Net

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