The world got a little less funny this week with the news that actor, writer and director Gene Wilder has passed away at the age of 83. According to a letter released to the public by Wilder’s nephew, the actor died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, a diagnosis that was not publicly known until now.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wilder started his career in the theatre, making his way to Broadway in productions like One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and Mother Courage and Her Children in the early 1960s. After striking up friendships with Mel Brooks and Richard Pyror, Wilder went on to have a hugely successful film career working with both men.
Wilder married SNL comedian Gilda Radner in 1982; sadly Radner died from ovarian cancer only seven years later, in 1989, prompting Wilder to launch the support group Gilda’s Club. Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999, but managed to fight the disease with chemotherapy and stem-cell transplants.
In addition to theatre and the big screen, Wilder wrote five books and won an Emmy in 2003 for his guest role on Will and Grace.
Upon news of Wilder’s passing, an outpouring of love and respect from his fans and peers began pouring into social media.
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 (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
so sad to learn of the passing of my good friend, gene wilder… such an incredible man… i’ll miss you ❤️
— Harry Connick Jr (@HarryConnickJR) August 29, 2016
“Good Day Sir!”
RIP Gene Wilder
— Ricky Gervais (@rickygervais) August 29, 2016
GENE WILDER, the face of childhood joy for many a generation, has passed. Farewell, sweet genius. Gilda awaits you. https://t.co/pybXNFlGaq
— KevinSmith (@ThatKevinSmith) August 29, 2016
They don’t make them like #GeneWilder. He was a one of a kind. His ability to turn a phrase was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Whether he was channeling un-contained chaos in Young Frankenstein or controlled nuance in Willy Wonka, he was always a supernova of unmatched energy on screen. He dared you to take his eyes off him and we the audience always lost the bet. No doubt, this has been a rough year. We have lost too many greats and a lot of them were far too young, but today’s loss is hitting me especially hard. During my time in Book of Mormon, I was blessed to encounter some of the finest entertainers and dignitaries. Every performance was like hosting an Oscar party or Governors Ball, but there were only two people I ever wrote to to come backstage after the show. One was Robin Williams and the other was Gene Wilder. Robin came back and we became fast friends. Unfortunately, Gene never did, because he had to catch a train back to Connecticut. He did however, leave a message for me that he was inspired by my lunacy packaged in pathos. All I wanted to tell him was, you taught me that. You gave me and millions of others the gift of your unmatched thunderous comedic timing wrapped in the gift of your delicate vulnerability. I have never seen anything like it before and I’m not sure if I ever will again. To borrow from one of Gene’s most iconic songs, he was nothing but pure imagination. And his imagination will live on for eras to come as new generations continue to discover his great works. But for now, this loss stings. It marks the end of yet another icon who will not soon be replaced. And now more than ever, we could all use a bit of that miraculous untamed comedy mixed with enormous heart. “And so shined a good deed… in a weary world.” You will be missed good sir. RIP Gene Wilder
The genius, the talent, the actor, the original, the artist, the storyteller, the creative, the iconic, the great, great, great Gene Wilder.
— Uzo Aduba (@UzoAduba) August 29, 2016
I saw Blazing Saddles 7 times at the cinema with my school friends . George St. Cows outside.
Gene Wilder you were a genius. Rest in Peace.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) August 29, 2016
— Isabelle’s Book Club (@IsabelsBookClub) August 29, 2016
To celebrate the life and work of Gene Wilder, we’re looking at his five most memorable film roles that made us laugh, made us cry, and oftentimes did both.
5. Silver Streak, 1976
Mel Brooks wasn’t the only comedian that Wilder teamed up with for multiple projects. Starting in 1976 with Silver Streak, Wilder and Richard Pryor went on to make four films together, including Stir Crazy in 1980, See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989, and Another You in 1991, with Wilder writing and directing the last two films. The two almost starred in six films together, but Mel Brooks ended up casting Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles over Pyror, who helped write the film. The comedians were also set to play the leads in Trading Places, but were replaced by Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy after Pryor suffered severe burns in a drug fueled incident. One of the strongest comedic duos in the history of film, it’s Wilder and Pyror’s first movie Silver Streak that ranks as their best work together.
Best Line: “If there’s ever anything that you need… don’t call me.”
4. The Producers, 1968
It’s the film that spurred a 2001 Broadway musical that won 12 Tony Awards, and a 2005 film remake with Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane. In the 1968 comedy The Producers, Wilder played accountant Leo Bloom. Written by Mel Brooks, the film follows a theatre producer and an accountant who aim to make a Broadway flop, only to have the show succeed and ruin their plan to run off with the investor’s money. The Producers, which was almost shelved due to its shocking story of a musical about Hitler, earned Wilder an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The film was the first time Brooks and Wilder worked together, and also marks Wilder’s crossover from stage to screen.
Best Line: “‘Springtime for Hitler,’ a gay romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden. Wow!”
3. Young Frankenstein, 1974
In adapting Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ with Brooks, Wilder took on one of his most beloved roles as Dr. Frankenstein. Combining laugh out loud physical and verbal comedy with heart and tenderness for a seven foot monster, Young Frankenstein became a critical darling and box office hit, cementing its place at number 13 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 funniest American movies.
Best Line: “No, it’s pronounced “Fronkensteen.”
2. Blazing Saddles, 1974
In one of the most outrageous comedies of all time, Mel Brooks’ take on racism and the wild west featured Gene Wilder and Cleavon Little as two outlaws hilariously trying to make sense of all the morons around them. Wilder’s drunk gun-slinger Jim was a scene stealer, with his on-screen friendship with Little a prime example of perfect comedy chemistry.
Best Line: “What did you expect? ‘Welcome, sonny? Make yourself at home? Marry my daughter?’ You’ve got to remember that these are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know… morons.”
1. Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, 1971
In 1971, Gene Wilder put on a crushed velvet jacket and brown top hat and became Roal Dahl’s Willy Wonka. As the mischievous confectioner, Wilder embodied the charisma and wonder of Wonka and his world of candy in a role that continues to be a staple in childhoods around the world.
Best Line: “If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it.”