The world was rocked today by the news that actor and comedian Gene Wilder had passed away. Gene was one of the comedy greats of all time, with blisteringly funny turns in classics like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. But for an entire generation, he is even better known as Willy Wonka himself. With a heavy heart, we gathered together to share some of our favorite stories and memories of this magical man. Rest in Peace, Gene. We never knew you, but you touched our lives all the same. Here is his family’s official statement:
It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parent, and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford, Conn. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him. The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. 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. It took enough, but not that.
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.
He is survived by Karen, Jordan, and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer), along Jordan’s wife, Elizabeth. Gene’s sister Corinne, predeceased him in January of this year.
He was 83 and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each of our cherished possessions. She was singingSomewhere Over The Rainbow as he was taken away.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Mike Fatum: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say there has never been, nor will ever be, a comedic talent like Gene Wilder. The man had a face made of rubber, a voice that could go from screaming to a whisper in the midst of the same joke, and a physicality that was both frenetic and yet somehow easy to follow. For millions of kids who are all grown up now, Wilder is the candy man who will take you to a magical world through the power of Pure Imagination.
I didn’t discover his magic until my Dad thought I was old enough to watch Blazing Saddles – sometime in high school – but with one joke, “Yeah, but this is my shooting hand,” he made me a lifelong fan. The world is a little darker and less magical today.
Grant Corvin: He was a man who could make most anything he said gold. His deadpan delivery with impeccable timing could illicit a laugh from almost anything he said. And even with that style, he was entirely genuine with how he said it. It was a strange dichotomy that could only exist in him, and it will be sorely missed.
Joe Hadsall: As much as ’74 was a good year for Mel Brooks, with “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” those two movies also encapsulate Wilder’s range as an actor pretty well. As Mike said about his vocal variety, his timing and sense of movement was sublime.
Malkontent Blizzard: He was the actor that taught me all about range. From Young Frankenstein to Sherlock Holmes’s Smarter Brother to the Producers. I’m glad he and Gilda are reunited.
Alexis George: One of the first acting roles I ever had was as Violet Beauregard on stage. I was a little kid, and I remember connecting the dots that the Mr. Wonka on film was also Frankenstein, and Waco the Kid (I saw Blazing Saddles young, I turned out fine. It was my dad’s favorite movie and was perpetually on in our house…) and the crazy Producer and a host of other parts. When I was little I used to think if I found ways to keep doing plays and taking parts until I was an adult, I might end up getting to have a job as cool and memorable as Gene Wilder’s was. When I got older and found out he had not only gone through cancer, but had lost a wife to it, and despite that he kept writing and being creative… A lot of my heart for creativity is rooted in Wilder’s work and tenacity. My heart goes out to his family today.
Melissa Devlin: I am never good at commenting on death as I seem to be unable to view it as an end, rather a shift in the story. His movies will carry the vibrancy of his life as long as we have digital records. His body is gone, but not our memories of him. So long as we hold him in our hearts he will exist forever.
Gene Wilder is a genius. I say is rather than was as the impression he made will continue to last generations.
I am fortunate to have parents who exposed me to the bredth of 1970s comedy (when I was barely old enough to appreciate it). This curly haired elf, nimble in his movements and truthful in his eyes struck my fancy as a teenager – give me a time machine and I would kiss him like a stranger.
Gene always said he “loved the show, hated the business”. Reading his autobiography at age 18 reaffirmed my way of performing and made me believe – ‘maybe I’m not so damned crazy for imagining fiction into being’. In Kiss Me Like A Stranger, he tells the story of his first performance in college. Gene walked on stage and felt himself transported. The theater walls fell away and he saw himself in a field. He saw a flower standing downstage, the same flower he had picked every night in rehearsal, but this time he could see it, feel it, hold it in his hand; his imagination had weight. The bliss of that moment for an actor – when an imagined world is brought into being, for a moment was detailed so perfectly. I’ve felt this magic only a handfull of times, but it is the dragon I chase as a performer. I have Mr. Wilder to thank for helping me identify it – and for reminding me there is magic in imagining the scene. I have never read this experience described so perfectly.
Gene will be missed, but I can’t help but smile imagining him reunited with his former wife Gilda Radner – waltzing through eternity, kicking up stardust.