Yesterday in Great Britain was a Bank Holiday and in a rare occurrence, it was actually a gorgeous sunshine day! The drinks were flowing, gardens were full and the smell of BBQ’s were ripe. I was having one myself, flipping over some burgers on the grill when my phone beeped. A message came through from one of my closest friends and when I read it, my eyes swelled with tears.
“Gene Wilder has passed away!”
In a year where this is a common news trend, this hit me just as hard as many before him, the man who for a new generation probably have never of, but for many my age, Gene Wilder was a comic genius.
He was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933 and at the age of eight years of age, his mother had a heart attack. The incident, while scary, set Wilder on the road to success. While his mother was ill, a doctor took the young boy to one side and said ” “Don’t ever get angry with her, you might kill her. You can make her laugh, though.” and for years Wilder took that advice believing that laughter was the best tonic and any harsh words, would hurt his mother.
At the age of 15 he made his first appearance on stage in a production of Romeo and Juliet which led to many appearances on stage, but it was in 1963, when he starred alongside Anne Bancroft in a Broadway production of Bertolt Brech’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children that fate intervened in his life. Bancroft was in a relationship with a certain Mel Brooks and the pair hit it off, became friends and started to work on a certain film that got Wilder his first Oscar Nomination in 1968.
Even though his first cinema appearance was a brief one in the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, it was a year later and in The Producers that brought him to the attention of the Oscar committee. Wilder enjoyed working with Brooks, but before they re-teamed to make a comedy classic, he took on the role of Willy Wonka, a decision that made him become one of the most loved creations for many of childhoods.
After starring in another classic, Woody Allen’s Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), in which his character was in love with a sheep, it was in 1974 that Wilder’s career became even more mainstream and as children loved his Wonka, adults feel in love with Jim, the Waco Kid (“Well, my name is Jim, but most people call me… Jim”) and of course Dr Fredrick Frankenstein ( “its pronounced Fronkensteen”) in both Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both films directed by Brooks himself.
Later years, Wilder found another star to have an amazing rapport with and his name went by a certain Richard Pryor. Silver Streak set the duo on the way, Stir Crazy in 1980 defined their relationship, while See No Evil Hear No Evil brought many of giggles for my young eyes watching, especially this scene
While the 1991 effort Another You brought an end to their relationship, mainly due to the poor health of Pryor, Wilder himself started to disappear from the limelight.
While he starred in his own NBC sitcom Something Wilder, Wilder admitted that he was getting tired of the world of stardom.
“I don’t like show business, I realised,” he explained on a Turner Television tribute. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”
His last acting gig was in a few episodes of Will and Grace in which he won and Emmy, before he finally stepped away and became a writer. Wilder’s memoir “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art” was published in 2005. After that he wrote fiction: the 2007 novel “My French Whore”; 2008’s “The Woman Who Wouldn’t”; a collection of stories, “What Is This Thing Called Love?,” in 2010; and the novella “Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance” in 2013.
News broke yesterday that Wilder had died at the age of 83, having succumb to complications with Alzheimer’s disease.
His nephew said in a statement, “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.”
The term legend is used quite loosely these days, but is a perfect fitting title for the man who gave me and millions more, cherished memories. His lyrics “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” for the film Willy Wonka, is best described when you look back at his roles and films. Wilder was a comedy genius, a man who will forever live on, his characters passed on from generation to generation.
RIP Gene and I end this with the most perfect send off……