Gene Wilder, who has died aged 83, was a complex and admirable man, who like many gifted comedians, had his own well-hidden demons.
On stage and screen Gene Wilder was a larger than life character; a showman, a comedian and a natural entertainer. Having passed away at a commendably sage-like 83, it is Wilder's humility that will be missed as sorely as his abiliity to make people laugh.
Plagued by shyness as a boy, his decision to act enabled him to escape into the screen personas he became famous for, and unlike many of his peers, he never lost his sense of self or forgot the path he had taken to attain success or, indeed, why.
His role as Leo Bloom, the neurotic accountant in Mel Brooks’ Oscar-nominated comedy The Producers in 1967, established Wilder’s screen persona – an initially well-balanced individual transformed by even the most minor crisis into a whining bundle of nerves. With his movie career taking off, Wilder was hugely funny in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) which showed his enjoyment of the off-beat: “I liked to take something bizarre and play it straight, like in Woody Allen’s Everything You’ve Always Wanted To Know About Sex... , when I fell in love with a sheep.”
Most people will know Wilder through the engaging and edgy eccentricity he brought to the title role in the film version of Roald Dahl’s Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). He was also very successful in two more Mel Brooks films, first as the Waco Kid, an alcoholic ex-gunfighter in Blazing Saddles, and opposite Marty Feldman an American descendant of the god-playing doctor in Young Frankenstein.
Wilder’s first two films as actor-director, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975), and The World’s Greatest Lover (1977), were quirky and stylish though his later films were less successful.
Off screen and stage, Wilder’s family life was difficult. His third wife, the gifted comedian Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer in 1989, aged 42. “I had one great blessing – I was so dumb,” he explained. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it. She never saw my fear.”
Shocked by her early death, Wilder urged doctors to look for the family links that could lead to earlier diagnosis. “Gilda didn’t have to die,” he tearfully told a Congressional committee. In 1993, he opened Gilda’s Club, a support centre for cancer patients and their families.
In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, although by 2005 was in remission, and in recent years he suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease but chose not to reveal his condition. Speaking over the weekend Wilder's son-in-law Jordan Walker-Pearlman said the decision was nothing to do with "vanity", rather "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."
Walker-Pearlman was also thankful for the limited impact the illness had had on Wilder in his later years, claiming they were: "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. It took enough, but not that."
Thanks to his art as a genuinely funny actor and fine person, many people loved Gene Wilder and will be saddened by his death.