Actor Gene Wilder, widely known for his mesmerizing performance in the beloved film, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” died Monday in his Stamford, Connecticut home.
Wilder, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989 and most recently Alzheimer’s, died due to complications with his illness. He was 83.
A student of acting since the age of 12, Wilder began his career in an Off Broadway show of the “Roots” in 1961.
The height of his success would come alongside an early, and soon-to-be longtime friend, filmmaker and actor Mel Brooks. With Brooks at the helm as the visionary and Wilder’s knack for playing a hysteric, yet tender-hearted character, the two made magic on the small screen.
The 1970’s were the Wilder years. In 1971 he became Willy Wonka, which was not an immediate success but grew to become an American movie favorite over the years. That decade also gave way to Wilder’s most memorable roles in Brooks’ films “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein” that he helped co-write and “The Producers.”
Directed and written by Brooks, Wilder earned two Oscar nominations for his role in “The Producers.” With that, his film career skyrocketed.
Onscreen, the fuzzy-haired, wide-eyed actor was unmatched in his ability -- until he met Richard Pryor.
The two comedians first starred in the 1976’s “Silver Streak,” a spoof thriller film, then the 1980’s “Stir Crazy” that grossed more than $100 million according to Variety. The pair would continue on to make “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You” in the years to follow. His last film with Pryor was a 1990’s comedy called “Funny About Love.”
Despite being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, he tried his hand briefly at a sitcom in 2003 as a guest role on “Will & Grace” where he earned an Emmy.
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“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,” Mel Brooks tweeted following Wilder’s death.
In a statement written to Variety, his nephew said his illnesses never stole his thirst for life.
“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.”
He is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991 and his nephew.