This Monday, the world became a little bit less humorous as 83-year-old comedic genius and actor Gene Wilder was pronounced dead inside of his Stamford, Connecticut home due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Whether it was through a famous internet meme or in the classic film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, chances are that Wilder has made us all laugh on at least a couple occasions.
Even outside of his famous role as Willy Wonka, the zany owner of the world’s most famous fictitious candy factory, Gene Wilder was also highly regarded for his hilarious acting chops and brilliant screenwriting skills. Together with his comedic confidant Mel Brooks, Wilder co-penned the hit movie Young Frankenstein, and also took over the lead role in an equally renowned film called The Producers. The two-time Academy Award nominated actor had a fruitful career filled with wisecracks, love, and laughter. To celebrate the heart-warming influence he had on the world, MERRY JANE takes a look back at the life and times of Gene Wilder.
1967 - Bonnie and Clyde
Though it was far from his most recognizable role, Wilder got his foot into the door of film with his appearance in the popular 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde, a film about an outlaw couple that immensely enjoyed committing crimes in each others company. Much like Wilder’s later work, the film was considered a game-changer in American cinema, one of the first to portray sex and violence that way that it did. Wilder played the role of the neurotic Eugene Gizzard, which was a minor role, but helped the young actor break into prominence nonetheless.
In 1968, Wilder earned his first feature role in The Producers, a satirical take on greed and Broadway written and directed by the famous Mel Brooks. Wilder and Brooks has originally met in 1963, and the two would end up being a lifelong friends and colleagues. But, the two didn’t work with one another until The Producers, a story about a theatrical producer and an accountant who fail to capitalize on their production of a Broadway flop. For his role as Leopold "Leo" Bloom, Wilder was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
1971 - Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory
Wilder reached a whole new level of stardom in 1971 when he played the role of Willy Wonka, one that would stick with him for the rest of his life. In the classic film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Wilder’s character, Willy Wonka, was the owner of the majestically dangerous and zany chocolate factory. The movie was based off of Roald Dahl’s 1964 novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and surprisingly, the film version was not initially received with much praise. But, as the movie gained immense popularity in the ‘80s through television, Wilder became an icon for millenials, kids, stoners, and chocolate lovers everywhere.
1974- Young Frankenstein
1974 was a major year for Wilder, who not only starred in the acclaimed Western comedy Blazing Saddles, which was created by Mel Brooks, but also starred in and co-wrote the comedic horror film Young Frankenstein. Working with Brooks, this was Wilder’s first widely recognized work as a writer, which would become a major facet of his career later on. In Young Frankenstein, which was a comedic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, Wilder played the main character Dr. Frederick Frankenstein. The film got he and Brooks were nominated for the Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay in 1975. After teaming up with Brooks on the hit film, Wilder went on to write a number of popular films, including The World’s Greatest Lover (1977) and The Frisco Kid (1979)
1984 - Wilder Gets Married to Gilda Radner
As he continued his lengthy career as one of the comedically talented actors around, Wilder met his wife Gilda Radner on the set of the film Hanky Panky, where the two worked together for the first time. Although she was married to guitarist G.E. Smith at the time, the two became inseparable and soon realized their immense love for one another. Wilder and Radner were married in 1984, the very same year that they released their second film together, The Woman in Red.
1995- Gilda’s Club
Unfortunately, due to her lengthy fight with ovarian cancer, Wilder’s wife Gilda Radner passed away in 1989. The death was devastating for Wilder, who rarely made a film appearance after her passing. Instead, Wilder turned his attention towards starting up Gilda’s Club, a community organization for people living with cancer, as well as for their families and friends. The organization was started alongside broadcaster Joel Siegel and Radner’s cancer psychotherapist Joanna Bull. Wilder later remarried in 1991 to Karen Webb, a clinical supervisor the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, whom he originally met while preparing for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
2005- Wilder Turns From Actor to Author
In 2005, Wilder released his memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, making for a strong and heartfelt introduction into the world of authorship. The memoir featured an extremely personal account of Wilder’s life from his childhood to the time of his wife’s death, and was then followed by his first-ever novel, My French Whore. This transition into writing signified the end of Wilder’s acting career, as he reportedly became tired of the business side of the industry.
2011 - Gene Wilder Becomes a Meme
Although Wilder decided to shy away from the big screen in his later years, he was unable to keep himself from becoming an internet sensation with one of the most popular and long-lasting internet memes of all time. The meme, which features a screenshot of Wilder in his Wonka role, has been widely used as a format to make condescending comments. Although the meme peaked around 2012, Wilder’s smiling face still pops up with a condescending statement attached to it from time to time.
2016 - Gene Wilder Dies at 83
After a long and fruitful career spent making the world laugh and cry, Wilder passed away from complications with Alzheimer’s on August 29, 2016. Although he was dealing with a debilitating disease, Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman released a statement about the comic actors death, but focused on a happy Wilder rather than the one suffering from such an awful condition:
“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. He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”
From all of us at MERRY JANE, rest in peace Gene Wilder, and may your comedic genius keep us all laughing for generations to come!