Mourning Gene Wilder, the Comedic Gentle Giant


Actor and director Gene Wilder has died at the age of 83.

The frizzy-haired, wild blue-eyed poignant actor and director Gene Wilder, known for his many iconic roles in films such as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein, has died at the age of 83.


The comedy gentle giant brought us inherently Jewish characters — from the doctor who made sure you said his name correctly (“it’s pronounced Franken-STEEN”) to the hysterical (and wet) accountant-turned-producer Leo Bloom — that dazzled on the big screen for decades.


He passed away Aug. 28 in his Stamford, Conn., home due to complications with Alzheimer’s disease, which he has been quietly battling for three years.


“The choice to keep this private was his choice,” said nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman in a statement. “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.


“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition 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.”


Following the Wonka role, Wilder continued to star in other comedies — some alongside Richard Pryor, including Stir Crazy and Silver Streak, and others like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother and The World’s Greatest Lover, which he also directed.


Wilder won an Emmy in 2003 for a guest role on Will and Grace.


Many celebrities and fans took to Twitter to honor the late actor, like friend and comic co-genius Mel Brooks, who tweeted Monday: “Gene Wilder — one of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship.”


Sharon Pinkenson, executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Film Office, said it is in the human condition to love Wilder.


“Anybody who is really human is a fan,” she laughed. “I can’t imagine that anyone wouldn’t have loved him, and certainly I’m included.”


And as a fan, she said she could recall some of his movies in great detail while others could use a refresher, so she suggested people should rewatch some of his films this weekend “and discover him again for themselves.”


“He was downright funny,” she added. “For the Jewish community, there was no doubt — we all knew he was Jewish. There was no big reveal. He was who he was. He was loveable and incredibly silly. Seeing him with Mel Brooks was just a joy to behold.


“I don’t know who’s going to replace him as that iconic, funny Jewish character who’s also so gentle. But it’ll be interesting to see because there will be someone.”


Wilder was married to Saturday Night Live cast member Gilda Radner for five years until her death in 1989.


He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen.


“He was 83 and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember,” continued Walker-Pearlman is the statement. “As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each of our cherished possessions. She was singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow as he was taken away.”


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