Willy Wonka star Gene Wilder dies at age 83

US actor and director Gene Wilder of the movie The Woman in Red during the 10th American Film Festival of Deauville.
US actor and director Gene Wilder of the movie The Woman in Red during the 10th American Film Festival of Deauville.PHOTO: AFP
Gene Wilder (right) starred alongside Cleavon Little in the comic western Blazing Saddles in 1974.
Gene Wilder (right) starred alongside Cleavon Little in the comic western Blazing Saddles in 1974.PHOTO: WARNER BROS

LOS ANGELES (Reuters/AFP) - Gene Wilder, who delighted audiences with his comic turns in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Mel Brooks classics including Blazing Saddles and The Producers, died Monday at age 83.

His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement the actor died of complications from Alzheimer's disease at his home in Connecticut.

"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.

"It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him."

Wilder, whose third wife Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, was treated for lymphoma in 2000 and had worked only sporadically since.

He was acclaimed for his turn as The Waco Kid in Brooks's third film, the spoof Western and box office smash Blazing Saddles. The 1974 movie shot down the myths perpetuated about the American West, pouring light on closeted racism, but it is also stacked full of gags and is often listed among critics' top 10 comedy films.

Brooks and Wilder joined forces on the script for the director's next film, Young Frankenstein, which poked fun at the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s.

"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 said on Twitter.

The Milwaukee native, known for his impeccable timing and frizzy hair, was introduced to Brooks by the actor's Broadway co-star Anne Bancroft in the 1960s.

Brooks, who went on to marry Bancroft, showed Wilder an early script entitled Springtime for Hitler, which would eventually become The Producers. He won the first of two Oscar nominations for his portrayal of Leopold Bloom in the film - his first major role.

It was however his portrayal of eccentric factory owner 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.

Wilder co-starred with Richard Pryor in several movies including the train-murder comedy Silver Streak (1976) and in Stir Crazy (1980).

His last major role was in a TV film version of Alice in Wonderland in the late 1990s, which also starred Ben Kingsley and Martin Short.

Born on June 11, 1933, Wilder spent his formative years trying to keep up the spirits of his ailing mother, who had a heart attack when he was just six and died 17 years later. His father was a Russian 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.

Wilder, whose real name was Jerome Silberman, studied at the Old Vic School in Bristol, England, becoming a talented fencer, and returned to the United States where he spent some time in the army. He left the military, changed his name and studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

His first acting job was in the Off-Broadway play Roots in 1961 and, six years later he made his motion picture debut in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde as undertaker Eugene Grizzard, who is kidnapped by the fugitive couple.

In September 1991, Wilder married his fourth wife Karen, a lip-reading coach. He was hospitalised in 1999 with the non-Hodgkin lymphoma but was said to be in complete remission in 2005.

Wilder lived in Stamford in a house built in 1734 that he had shared with Radner, writing and painting watercolours with his wife Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991. He won an Emmy in 2003 for outstanding guest actor in a comedy series for appearances on Will and Grace.

Wilder's memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, was released in 2005 and he collaborated with oncologist Steven Piver on the book Gilda's Disease in 1998.

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 movie western marathons and delighted in the company of beloved ones," he added.