Obituary

Tributes to Gene Wilder flood social media

Gene Wilder in a 2013 file photo. He had kept his illness secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.
Gene Wilder in a 2013 file photo. He had kept his illness secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

LOS ANGELES • News on Monday of the death of Hollywood comic Gene Wilder led to an outpouring of tributes on social media from fans and fellow stars.

The star established himself as one of America's foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks, his eccentric star turn in the family classic Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (1971) and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office hit Stir Crazy (1980).

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said he died of complications from Alzheimer's, holding hands with family members and taking his last breath as Ella Fitzgerald's Somewhere Over The Rainbow played on a speaker. He was 83.

He said Wilder chose to keep his illness secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.

"It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent and universal artist Gene Wilder at his home in Stamford, Connecticut," he said in a statement. Wilder, whose third wife Gilda Radner, the Saturday Night Live comedienne, died of ovarian cancer in 1989, was treated for lymphoma in 2000 and had worked only sporadically since.

His barely contained hysteria made him a go-to lead for Brooks, who cast him as The Waco Kid in his 1974 classic Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein (1974) and The Producers (1968). "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," Brooks, 90, said on Twitter.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee and known for his impeccable timing and frizzy hair, Wilder made his Broadway debut in 1961 as the comic valet in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover. In his first major role on Broadway, he acted in a 1963 production of Mother Courage And Her Children and met co-star Anne Bancroft. The actress was then dating Brooks - her future husband - and she introduced the two, who hit it off immediately.

The director showed Wilder an early script entitled Springtime For Hitler, which would eventually become The Producers. Wilder won the first of his two Oscar nominations for his portrayal of Leopold Bloom in the film - his first major role. The film became a cult favourite and, years later with a different cast, a monster hit on Broadway.

Wilder was a last-minute fill-in as The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles, and, with Brooks, wrote the screenplay for Young Frankenstein, also released to big box-office returns. The two were nominated for Best Screenplay Oscars, but lost to Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo for The Godfather Part II (1974).

It was, however, his portrayal of eccentric candy impresario Willy Wonka in the 1971 musical fantasy based on Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, that turned him into a superstar. His role earned him a Golden Globe nomination in 1971.

He co-starred with Pryor in several movies, including the train-murder comedy Silver Streak (1976), for which he took a Globe nomination, and in Stir Crazy.

He won an Emmy in 2003 for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for appearances on Will And Grace.

"Forever a great comedy film duo Dad and #GeneWilder RIP," Pryor's daughter Rain Pryor tweeted.

His last major role was in a TV film version of Alice In Wonderland in 1999, co-starring Ben Kingsley and Martin Short.

Wilder spent his formative years trying to keep up the spirits of his ailing mother, who had a heart attack when he was six and died 17 years later. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant who imported alcohol bottles.

He developed a love for acting when he played Willy Loman in a high school adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death Of A Salesman, graduating from the University of Iowa with a degree in theatre.

In 1991, he married his fourth wife Karen Boyer, a lip-reading coach. Walker-Pearlman said Wilder's Alzheimer's, which he had kept private, "never stole his ability to recognise those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality".

"He continued to enjoy art, music and kissing with his leading lady of the last 25 years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon western movie marathons and delighted in the company of beloved ones," he added.

Boyer survives Wilder, as does a daughter from an earlier marriage.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Tributes to Gene Wilder flood social media'. Print Edition | Subscribe