He died Monday in Stamford, Connecticut, of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, his nephew tells the AP.
1. His Family Said He Didn’t Want to Disclose His Condition Before His Death
In a statement published by Variety, Wilder’s nephew said the actor didn’t want to reveal his Alzheimer’s diagnosis prior to his death:
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.
Wilder also battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he was diagnosed with in 1989.
2. He Was Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee & Studied at the University of Iowa
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933, according to the Associated Press. He attended the University of Iowa, where he studied theatre and communications. He also studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955.
He was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956, but was discharged a year later after his mother died of ovarian cancer.
When he was 26, he adopted the stage name Gene Wilder, saying in his memoir, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.”
3. His Breakthrough in Acting Came in ‘The Producers’ in 1968
Wilder’s breakthrough role was as Leo Bloom in The Producers in 1968, in which he played Leo Bloom and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He worked alongside producer, writer and director Mel Brooks in that film and several others.
Brooks tweeted Monday, “One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.”
After The Producers, Brooks then starred in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in 1971.
Wilder was also known for his performances in Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He was close friends with the late Richard Pryor, and the duo starred in four films together.
4. He Is Survived by His Wife & Adopted Daughter
Wilder is survived by his wife, Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991. He was also survived by his adopted daughter, Katharine Wilder. He was estranged from his daughter.
He was married three times before Boyer: to Mary Mercier from 1960 to 1965, to Mary Joan Schutz, Katharine’s mother, from 1967 to 1974 and to Gilda Radner from 1984 until her death in 1989.
5. He Stopped Acting in 2003 & Turned to Writing, Authoring a Memoir & Collection of Short Stories
Wilder last appeared on screen in 2003, as a guest star on the TV show Will & Grace. He provided voice work for the tv show Yo Gabba Gabba! in 2015, according to IMDB.
He turned to writing in his later years, publishing a memoir, , Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, a series of short stories called What Is This Thing Called Love? and three novels.