Gene Wilder, the actor immortalized by his role as Willy Wonka, has died at age 83, his family announced Monday. Some of Wilder’s most iconic roles were in the early films of Mel Brooks where he portrayed the nervous accountant Leo Bloom in 1968’s The Producers, the drunk cowboy who teams up with a black sheriff in Blazing Saddles, and Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced Frahn-ken-steen) in Young Frankenstein.
Wilder’s nephew told the Associated Press that the actor died late Sunday in Stamford, Connecticut, due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, he first adopted the stage name Gene Wilder at age of 26.
“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,” Wilder’s nephew said in a statement. “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”
The family went on to say that the decision to conceal Wilder’s condition from the public until his death “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 was holding the hands of his family and listening to Ella Fitzgerald sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when he finally passed.
Brooks, who was Wilder’s most enduring creative partner, posted a tribute on Twitter shortly after news broke of his friend’s death.
Wilder and Brooks shared a writing credit on Young Frankenstein, for which they were both nominated for an Academy Award. Wilder was also nominated as Best Actor in a Supporting Role for The Producers. Later, he co-starred with comedian Richard Pryor in four films over a span of 25 years.
After two previous marriages, Wilder famously married comic actress and original Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner in 1984 after starring together in the Sidney Poitier-directed film Hanky Panky. They remained together until Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989. He went on to co-found the nationwide Gilda’s Club support group network in her name.
Wilder is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, who he had been married to since 1991, along with one nephew.
In addition to the statement from Mel Brooks, Wilder received a long list of tributes from fellow actors and comedians, including contemporaries and those he inspired, on Twitter Monday afternoon.
Perhaps no single moment in Wilder’s work will resonate more for his fans today than his gentle, touching performance of the song “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.