Gene Wilder, the comedic actor whose tightly wound characters often seemed about to tear out their frizzy hair in such classic films as “The Producers,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and “Young Frankenstein,” died Monday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said the actor died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to Variety. Wilder was 83.
Wilder was not only one of the most familiar faces of screen comedy during the 1960s and 1970s, but one of the most versatile. He played an anxious accountant in “The Producers” (1968), a mad scientist in “Young Frankenstein” (1974) and an alcoholic gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles” (1974), all for director Mel Brooks. Wilder’s strangely intense Willy Wonka, which gave the 1971 film the slight tinge of a horror movie, is still considered the definitive portrayal. He played the romantic lead opposite Jill Clayburgh in the action-comedy “Silver Streak” (1976), a hit that also established Wilder and co-star Richard Pryor as one of the first interracial buddy-comedy teams. They would make four films together.
In 1981, Wilder met the woman who would become the great love of his life, Gilda Radner, on the set of the movie “Hanky Panky.” The two comedians with the flyaway hair were married three years later, in 1984, and remained so until Radner’s death from ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder worked infrequently after that, though in 2003 he won an Emmy for playing the eccentric Mr. Stein on NBC’s “Will and Grace.”
Recalling his late wife on “Larry King Live” in 2002, Wilder said, “I’m funny on camera sometimes. In life, once in a while. Once in a while. But she was funny.”
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933 in Milwaukee, and developed his acting skills at the age of 6 when his mother suffered a heart attack. “She had a cracked and enlarged heart,” Wilder told Merv Griffin in 1979. “What can I do? I was 6 years old. So I tried to make her laugh.” At 13 he was taking acting lessons, and at 15 he was performing in plays. After a stint in the Army during the mid-1950s, Wilder moved to New York and began making a name for himself off-Broadway.
In 1963, Wilder — who had taken his stage name from playwright Thornton Wilder — starred in “Mother Courage and Her Children” opposite Anne Bancroft, who was dating Mel Brooks. “Why are they laughing at me? My big speech is not supposed to be funny, it’s supposed to be touching,” Wilder often complained backstage, according to Timothy White’s biography of Brooks. “Ah, so what?,” Brooks replied. “You are a natural comic, you look like Harpo Marx!” Brooks would cast Wilder as Leo Bloom in “The Producers,” setting the actor on a path toward comedy.
Wilder also wrote, directed and starred in three films: the underrated “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” (1975), “The World’s Greatest Lover” (1977) and “Haunted Honeymoon.” Wilder and Brooks shared an Oscar nomination for best screenplay for “Young Frankenstein” (1974).
Throughout his career, interviewers often asked Wilder if his comedy came from a place of emotional turbulence or unhappiness. “When I’m not working on something, I seem to go through periods of depression,” Wilder told Roger Ebert in a 1979 interview. “It helps to keep busy.”