Willy Wonka has died. Or at least Gene Wilder, the actor who will be forever synonymous with the role he played over forty years ago, has died. Except Gene Wilder was his stage name as he was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on 11th June 1933. His father was Russian and his mother was of Polish origin who suffered a heart attack when he was a child leaving her partially disabled. The attending doctor warned him not to get angry with her as, ‘you might kill her but you can make her laugh though!’ And so he tried his best to make her laugh with sketches he would improvise for her.
As he got older he was sent to a Hollywood military school where he was deeply unhappy as he was bullied for being the only Jewish boy there and soon came home where he became involved in amateur dramatics at the local theatre where he first appeared in public in Romeo and Juliet at 15. Soon after he attended the university of Iowa where he studied Theatre Arts before moving to the UK where he continued his studies at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school where he admitted to feeling constrained by the lessons but achieved a first there, that is to say the first American to win the English schools fencing championship which owed much to his admiration of Errol Flynn.
In the mid fifties he was drafted into the army working on a psychiatric ward and electroshock therapy and after he was discharged from the military he changed his name to Gene Wilder joking that he didn’t think his own Jewish name would lend itself to playing Hamlet.
He gained small roles in Broadway pays but in 1963 he starred alongside Anne Bancroft who at the time was in a relationship with Mel Brooks who would later be her future husband. It was Brooks who invited him to read his script, ‘Springtime for Hitler’. However there was no money to make the film and whilst Brooks battled to get it made Wilder made his first film in 1967 as the undertaker in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ by which time Brooks was ready to make what was to be now called, ‘The Producers’ with Wilder teamed with Zero Mostel as they deliberately tried to make a flop Broadway show with a tasteless musical about the Nazis as a financial scam only to find their show was a huge success. The role of the neurotic accountant earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
The neurotic role with bursts of hysteria, panic and rage would typify many of the characters he would later play in Brooks’ films and their partnership would prove extremely popular liberating him from how constrained he felt his training in the UK had been.
It was his lead role as Willy Wonka in the film of Roald Dahl’s best known book that cemented his place in a generation of children’s minds. It was a role that he insisted on only taking if he could first appear doubled up reliant on a walking stick before falling over into a tumble and leaping to his feet. It was this that he felt would wrong foot the audience who would never be quite sure if he was telling the truth or not as the film progressed. It was a role that he was rightly proud and earned him a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actor and he declined any involvement in the 2005 remake and was scathing about it telling a British newspaper, ‘It’s just some people sitting around thinking, ‘How can we make some more money? Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?’
From here he continued to make comedies including ‘Everything you always wanted to know about sex’ for Woody Allen before reuniting with Brooks for 1974’s ‘Blazing Saddles’ in a film that Richard Pryor contributed to and who he would form another successful partnership with a few years later. Wilder then co-wrote ‘Young Frankenstein’ with Brooks which earned him another Oscar nomination but for screenwriting.
In 1976 he teamed up with Richard Pryor in ‘Silver Streak’ and shortly after in 1980’s, ‘Stir Crazy’. Wilder describer their working relationship as having a telepathic rapport and as having a personal affinity with people (like Pryor) who had had a tough time in their lives. They went on to appear together again in 1989 in ‘See no evil ,hear no evil’ and their final film together was ‘Another You’. They would have appeared in 1982’s ‘Hanky Panky’ if it had not been for Pryor’s ill health at the time and instead the role was rewritten for his 3rd wife Gilda Radner. She tragically died in 1989 of ovarian cancer having been misdiagnosed 10 months earlier and in her memory Wilder founded an Ovarian cancer detection centre in LA to raise awareness of the disease.
Tragedy beset his life as he too contracted cancer when diagnosed with no-Hodgkins disease in 1999 which he survived. On a more personal level h also had a daughter from his second wife that he became estranged from admitting years later that he had a daughter but, ‘lost her a long while ago’.
By the mid nineties he began to grow disenchanted with acting and it’s limelight and though he played the lead in a short lived sit com, ‘Something Wider’ from 1994 – 1996 and even won an Emmy for a guest role in 2003’s ‘Will and Grace’ he announced his retirement shortly afterwards. ‘ I don’t like show business, I realised. I like show but I don’t like the business’ he said on a US tribute . Instead he went on to write 3 novels over the course of seven years including a very personal autobiography.
At 80, three years before his death he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and on Sunday 28th August he died from complications of the disease whilst surrounded by his family.