Most people remember him as the magical Willy Wonka, but true fans know he was much more than the purple-suited candy man. Even though he had a career of more than five decades, he always remained very private about his personal life. Read on to discover never-known facts about the wonderful Wonka.
Gene Wilder Changed His Name
What's in a name? Quite a bit, if you ask this screen legend. We’ve only ever known him as Gene Wilder, but this brilliant actor was actually born Jerome Silberman, in 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At age 26, he decided his name was too bland and decided to formally become Gene Wilder.
His inspiration for the name came from his passion for Thomas Wolfe novels, which often had a character named Eugene Gant. As for the last name, he was also a big fan of American playwright Thornton Wilder. And just like that, one of the best actors in history came to be.
His Family Were Orthodox Russian Immigrants
Like many other Jewish families at the time, Wilder’s father, William Silberman, had migrated from Russia after the First World War. His mother, Jeanne Baer, was born in the U.S. but she came from a family of Orthodox Russians as well. The common background was presumably what brought the couple together. They got married and had a daughter and a son together.
Growing up, Wilder and his family were part of a Jewish Orthodox Congregation, but as time went by, they started affiliating with a Conservative synagogue. The Silbermans settled in Wisconsin and made a life for Wilder and his older sister.
Strong Jewish Roots
As Jewish tradition dictates, Wilder had a Bar Mitzvah at age 13. The Jewish custom symbolizes a boy's transition into manhood and the ceremony involves the young man reading an excerpt of the Torah in front of all the guests invited. Little Wilder wasn’t too happy about performing, though. Apparently, he had a high soprano tone, and it was very hard for anyone to hear him in the huge synagogue.
In an attempt to fix the issue, he demanded they put microphones in the temple, or there would be no Bar Mitzvah. The microphones were installed, but by then, the growing boy’s voice had changed its pitch.
He Was an Incredible Fencer
Most of the time, when we hear about actors with a knack for fencing, it's because they were introduced to the sport as part of the preparation for a role (We're looking at you, Viggo Mortensen.) That's not the case with Gene Wilder, though! Few people know that one of Wilder’s many talents included being an avid fencer.
All throughout school, the beloved actor was one of the best fencers in his class, and he reached such levels of excellence that he even worked as a fencing professor later in his life. Wilder loved fencing, but soon he would discover his true passion – acting. He fell in love with the craft in a very unusual way.
How Wilder Fell in Love With Acting
When Wilder was eight years old, his mother got very sick with rheumatic fever and had to spend weeks in bed. The doctor told the young boy that his job to help heal his mother was to make her laugh. The little boy took this job very seriously – almost instantly, he began putting on plays and skits to entertain her. He found his own passion in the process.
Wilder loved it, and three years later, at age 11, he went to see his sister perform on stage at her acting school and knew it was what he wanted to do with his life.
A Terrible Experience at a Military Institute
At age 13, Wilder’s mother comprehended that her son was too talented and had too much potential for the simple Wisconsin school he was attending. In an effort to find a place that would help him fulfill his potential, she decided to send him to Black Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood. Sadly, however, it quickly proved to be a terrible decision.
Since Wilder was the only Jewish boy in the school, he was terribly bullied and attacked. Thankfully, he didn't have to go through it for a long time. He returned home after a few months and became very involved with the local theater.
His First Paid Performance
After many plays and rehearsals, Wilder landed his first performance before a paying audience when he was as young as 15 years old. Oh, to be a young person with a passion and get paid for that passion! The pleasure is unmatched. The local theater put on a production of “Romeo and Juliet,” and he played the role of Romeo’s servant, Balthasar.
The play was a success, and Wilder became even more enamored with acting. Three years later, after graduating from school at 18, he enrolled in the theater arts program at Iowa University. There, he hoped, he could continue honing his craft.
Wilder Was a Jewish Frat Boy
You wouldn’t think it judging by the roles he portrayed throughout his career, but Wilder was actually a fraternity jock! After enrolling at Iowa University to study theater arts and communication, one of the first things he did was pledge his loyalty to become a brother at the Alpha Epsilon Pi — a Jewish fraternity. FYI, this was the same fraternity the famous Mark Zuckerberg joined at Harvard many (many) years later.
But fraternity parties and wild times at college never affected Wilder’s spectacular grades. He graduated in 1955, and the University awarded him the Distinguished Alumni Award for excellence.
He Attended a Prestigious Theater School in England
After graduating college, Wilder got accepted to the prestigious Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Not that we ever thought he wouldn't. Our dear actor made the trip across the pond and settled in Bristol, England, for nearly a year. While in school, he also studied fencing, and his skills got so sharp that he became the first freshman to ever win the famous All-School Fencing Championship.
However, Wilder was determined to study the reputed Stanislavski acting method and decided to return to the U.S. to do so. He moved into his sister’s home in Queens, NY, and enrolled in HB Studio, a performing arts organization.
Serving in the U.S. Army
While his experiences in military school weren't exactly positive, Wilder's experiences in the actual military were vastly different. Shortly after moving back to the U.S., Wilder was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1956 and assigned to the medical corps after basic training.
After some time, he was given the chance to choose his post, and, wanting to stay close to New York City and his performing arts school, he chose to work as a paramedic at the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology of Valley Forge General Hospital in Pennsylvania. This way, he could both do medical work and keep working on his passion.
A Family Tragedy
In November of 1957, Wilder’s mother passed away from a battle with cancer, and it devastated the family. Sadly, this was not something that could be cured by putting on skits, no matter how funny they were. One year after her death, Wilder was discharged from the army, and he went straight back to New York City to pursue acting full-time.
He went back to a full class schedule at the HB Studio, and while he lived off unemployment benefits for a while, he ultimately got odd jobs as a fencing teacher or driving limousines. Imagine being driven around by this man!
He Auditioned for “The Magnificent Seven”
In 1960, Wilder tried his hand in the big leagues when he auditioned for the role of the infamous Vin Tannen in the Hollywood classic “The Magnificent Seven.” The film, directed by John Sturges, was a Western thriller that became an instant classic.
Sadly for Wilder, he didn’t get the part, and it went to the legendary Steve McQueen instead. Honestly, it would be hard to imagine anybody but McQueen in that role, something that even Wilder agreed with decades later. And besides, it looks like this one part he didn't get didn't really stop him from doing big things in the future.
Getting Into The Actors' Studio
Around 1959, the up-and-coming Wilder got accepted into the prestigious Actors' Studio, a membership organization of famous actors and performers. (Not the in-depth talk show with James Lipton we first had in mind.) This gave Wilder much recognition, especially in off-Broadway plays; one of his most famous was his role in the Broadway adaptation of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Wilder played the role of mentally ill patient Billy Bibbit in the 1963 play alongside co-star Kirk Douglas. From then on, people started to notice Wilder as a true talent and he started expanding his list of acting credits.
He Met Mel Brooks Through His Wife
In 1960, Wilder was cast in a play called “Mother Courage and Her Children,” in which he starred alongside famous actress Anne Bancroft. As it turns out, Bancroft was dating legendary comedy director Mel Brooks at the time, and she arranged a meeting between him and Wilder in 1963, not knowing how pivotal that meeting was going to be for Wilder's life. The two guys immediately got along.
Little did Wilder know that this meeting was going to be the start of an incredibly successful Hollywood career. Not to mention the start of an incredibly successful Hollywood friendship for the ages.
He Almost Didn’t Star in “The Producers”
Some months after Wilder and Brooks first met, Brooks offered him the part of accountant Leo Bloom in a new screenplay he was working on. Since it was still a work in progress and Wilder had other job commitments, Brooks made him promise to call him before taking any permanent acting jobs anywhere else.
For three years, Wilder didn’t hear from Brooks until one day, he got a call. Wilder had to go audition with famous actor Zero Mostel for a part in the legendary film “The Producers.” He got the part, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Wilder Considered Himself a Drama Actor
As weird as it may sound, it wasn’t until Wilder met Mel Brooks that he considered the possibility of being a comedy actor. Wilder had always considered himself a dramatic actor, meant for more serious roles. This was back at a time when comedy wasn't taken very seriously and people outside the entertainment industry didn't realize how much of a talented professional you have to be to make people laugh.
But shortly after meeting Brooks, he realized he had a real talent for making people laugh, and this ultimately led to him taking on the number of hilarious and outrageous roles he portrayed throughout his career.
He Landed the Role of Willy Wonka Almost Immediately
Without a doubt, one of Wilder’s most famous and memorable roles will always be that of Willy Wonka in the cult classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” In 1971, director Mel Stuart was doing a film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s famous book, and everyone obviously wanted to audition. This included famous actors Fred Astaire and Peter Sellers, both of whom were no match for Wilder.
When Wilder showed up to read some lines for the part and exited the studio. Not 10 seconds went by after Mel Stuart got off his chair and ran after him to offer him the role.
Wilder Had Conditions to Play Willy Wonka
When Wilder accepted the role of Wonka, he had some interesting conditions for the director. He said that his character should first enter the film by “coming out of the door with a cane and walking toward the crowd with a limp. The crowd will think Wonka is a cripple, but as I walk closer, my cane gets stuck, and as I’m about to fall, I jump and do a huge somersault, and everybody applauds.”
This is exactly how Wilder first enters the scene in the movie, and it was truly unforgettable. Wilder explained that “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
He Shaped Willy Wonka’s Character
It's hard to imagine a Willy Wonka portrayed by anyone other than Wilder, and odds are that no other actor would have had the same character-shaping ideas that he had. Few people know that Wilder was behind the character development of the insanely unique Willy Wonka.
While in pre-production, Wilder made several suggestions on his costume, one of them being that his hat had to be 2 inches shorter. He also had a hand in the color and cut of his iconic suit. Nearly every single suggestion of Wilder’s was heard and taken into account for the final costume. This ultimately made Wonka the uniquely trippy character we all know and love.
Wilder Ate Pretend Wax Candy as Willy Wonka
Anybody who watched “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” will agree that the set design was something out of this world. Up until this point in time, never in the history of cinema had we seen a crazier, trippy, or more colorful setting.
As it turns out, the iconic chocolate river was made of real chocolate, imagine that! But the rest of the candy was pretended wax props. Apparently, Wilder actually took a bite out of some flower cups and chewed real wax during his “Pure Imagination” song. Eating wax props while keeping the scene going? Now, that's what we call committing to your craft!
Roald Dahl Didn’t Like Wilder as Willy Wonka
Once a best-selling book gets adapted into a movie, there are bound to be some differences of opinion as to any and all aspects of the adaptation. If you ask anybody what they think about Wilder’s portrayal of the cooky Willy Wonka, they’ll say he was perfect. Anybody but the actual author of the book, that is.
It seems that children’s author Roald Dahl, writer of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” supposedly hated Wilder’s portrayal. According to close sources, Dahl said that “there were many good things in the movie," but he had serious reservations about Wilder’s performance, which he thought ‘pretentious’ and "not ‘bouncy’ enough.”
Wilder Hated Tim Burton’s Version of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”
Dahl was within his right to not like Wilder's take on his character. So was Wilder when he confessed to not liking his Wonka successor Johnny Depp. When news broke out that master of gothic fantasy Tim Burton was set to direct a remake of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” people couldn’t wait for its release. Unfortunately, when it finally came out in 2005, it didn’t live up to the hype.
Even Wilder publicly stated that he had hated Burton’s remake, going as far as to call it “an insult.” Wilder said, “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff as he did.”
Willy Wonka Didn’t Bring Commercial Success
Not all of the classics we currently know and love started off as huge successes. Sometimes it takes some time for people to wrap their heads around greatness. Despite “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” being loved by critics and ultimately gaining a cult following and an Oscar and Golden Globe nomination, the movie wasn’t a box-office success. Wilder was tired of flops since the film he’d worked on previously also didn’t do too well.
Sadly, there were no golden tickets at the end of “Willy Wonka’s” premiere, with the movie making a measly $4.5 million in box-office sales when it spent a budget of $3 million.
Wilder Rose Back to Fame With Woody Allen
After a couple of projects he was involved in didn't quite receive the recognition they were due, the quirky actor was on the lookout for a new project in the hopes that it would be a hit. Reeling from the commercial flop that was “Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory,” Wilder agreed to take on the now-famous role of Dr. Ross in Woody Allen’s new movie.
The 1972 film, titled “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” was a commercial success. With a budget of $2 million, the film grossed more than $18 million.
Wilder Wrote the Start of “Young Frankenstein”
After starring in Woody Allen’s 1972 hit comedy film, Wilder started to write a script of his own — “Young Frankenstein.” After finishing two pages, he called his friend Mel Brooks to ask for his opinion, to which Brooks simply responded, “it’s cute.” He didn't know it at the time but he was about to become a lot more enthusiastic about this script.
The project was left in the air until finally Brooks agreed to do it, seeing as his last two films hadn’t done well commercially. In 1974, “Young Frankenstein” was released, and it was a huge commercial success.
He Almost Didn’t Star in “Blazing Saddles”
When Brooks was filming “Blazing Saddles,” one of his main actors, Dan Dailey, who was meant to play the Waco Kid, suddenly dropped out. Brooks immediately called his old pal Wilder, who was in London at the time about to start filming for a movie adaptation of “The Little Prince.”
Wilder flew back to the U.S., filmed his scenes for “Blazing Saddles,” and returned to England to finish “The Little Prince.” While not many people remember "The Little Prince," Brooks's "Blazing Saddles" became a classic. Can you imagine the legendary comedy film without Wilder in it? Yeah, neither can we.
Wilder Was Also a Director
It seems that Wilder's first attempt at creating his own project (rather than acting in other people's) just made him hungry for more. While he was filming the epic “Young Frankenstein,” Wilder started writing a full-length script of an idea he’d had for a romantic musical comedy titled “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother.”
The film became Wilder’s directorial debut and a commercial success, featuring prominent actors of the time, such as Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman. With a budget of $2 million, it made over $20 million at the box office. Not bad for his first time directing!
His First Meeting With Richard Pryor
At the end of 1975, Wilder received a script for a film titled “Super Chief.” Wilder liked the idea but figured the movie was at risk of being misrepresenting the black comminuty, so he said he could star in only if Richard Pryor was cast to make sure the film wasn’t offensive. The demand paid off because he and Pryor ended up making history as Hollywood’s first successful interracial movie comedy duo.
The film was renamed “Silver Streak,” and it became a box-office success, with critics and viewers praising its hilarious storyline. Wilder knew what he was doing, and so did Pryor!
Wilder Wanted to Direct More Films
Wilder could never sit still, as even when he was filming “Silver Streak,” he was working on his next movie. He wrote, produced, and directed “The World’s Greatest Lover,” a comedy film inspired by Federico Fellini’s 1952 film, “The White Sheik.”
Unfortunately, after the film’s release in 1977, it was a commercial failure. Obviously, you can't have each and every one of your projects do well all the time. Not even when you're Gene Wilder. He wasn't the kind of guy to let one flop get him down, and that didn’t stop him from jumping headfirst to the next project.
Wilder Helped Catapult Harrison Ford’s Career
After his 1977 movie flop, Wilder started working on the famous Western comedy, “The Frisco Kid.” He helped write the screenplay, and Robert Aldrich came on as the movie's director. John Wayne was meant to play the iconic Tommy Lillard, but he had to drop out of the project at the last minute, and Wilder had a brilliant idea about who might be a good fit to replace him.
He suggested they cast the then-up-and-coming actor Harrison Ford. It ended up being a perfect fit, and the movie was a hit and a huge help in further advancing Ford’s acting career.
Wilder Came Up with the Most Iconic Bit in “Young Frankenstein”
No one will ever be able to forget the iconic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” bit in Wilder’s film “Young Frankenstein.” That scene where he and Frankenstein are tapping and dancing in suits and top hats while singing is simply incredible. But few people know that this bit was entirely Wilder’s idea, and Mel Brooks wasn’t too keen on it.
Wilder was adamant about including the bit, and Brooks had no desire to do so, but ultimately, they decided to film it. Of course, Brooks approached Wilder after filming had wrapped and told him it was the best thing in the movie.
Wilder and Sidney Poitier Became Great Friends
When two people work so well together, there's no reason to not keep casting them side by side, now is there? Since his first collaboration with Richard Pryor had been such a success, the comedy duo got together again in 1980 for the film “Stir Crazy.” The director, the famous Sidney Poitier, became great friends with Wilder while working together.
They worked together to complete what became very difficult filming since Pryor was in the middle of a severe substance abuse problem, and keeping a schedule was near impossible. Fortunately, they finished the film, and it was a huge success.
Wilder Married Four Times
When studying in the reputed HB Studio in New York, Wilder met fellow acting student Mary Mercier. They dated for a few months and got married in the summer of 1960, and even though the marriage lasted five years, they spent long stretches of that time apart due to Wilder’s work and army duties.
Soon after divorcing, Wilder met Mary Schutz, a friend of his sister, and they fell for each other. They got married in 1967 and were together for seven years. His third wife was comedian Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984, and the fourth was Karen Webb, who stayed with him until his 2016 passing.
He Had an Adopted Daughter
Wilder’s second wife, Mary Schutz, had a daughter named Katherine from a previous marriage, but that wasn't something that kept them apart in any way. Before Wilder and Schutz married, Katherine started referring to Wilder as “dad,” and he decided to make it official and adopt her. “It was the right thing to do,” he claimed in an interview.
Unfortunately, Wilder and Katherine grew apart later in life and never really reconnected, despite his many tries. We can imagine Wilder being an incredibly fun parent but we can never know the intricacies behind the real-life relationships of a man and his adopted daughter.
Wilder Did Many Collaborations With Poitier
In 1982, Wilder and Sidney Poitier started working on a script called “Traces,” which later became the famous film “Hanky Panky.” You didn't think they would stop after just one project together, right? Apart from being very well received, the film was where he met comedian, Gilda Radner.
At first, the two co-stars became fast friends, as they were both dating other people at the time. But it didn’t take long for these two friends to realize they were crazy about each other, especially after filming ended and they went their separate ways. They just missed each other too much!
Gilda Radner Was the Love of His Life
When two such comedic personalities meet and have a good connection, it is almost inevitable for them to become an item, and that's exactly what happened. By the time they finished filming “Hanky Panky” in 1982, Radner and Wilder moved in together and decided to get married two years later. They worked on several projects together during those years, including “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon.”
Unfortunately, neither of the projects was a commercial success, and since the couple was thinking of starting a family by that time, they took a break from the industry for a few months.
Woman in Red
Although "The Woman in Red" was not considered one of Wilder's greatest projects, there are some elements that will never be forgotten. And we are not referring only to Kelly LeBrook and her stunning red dress.
Wilder wrote the script of the movie, which was inspired by the French movie "Pardon Mon Affaire." "The Woman in Red" won the Academy Award for best song, featuring Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You." Interestingly, while it's not one of Wilder's most memorable movies, it did more than just break even at the box office, having grossed $25.3 million against a $9 million budget.
Wilder and Radner Couldn’t Have Children
Once Wilder and Radner decided to start trying for a family, tragedy ensued. Radner had several miscarriages, and no doctor could give them a reason why. Getting pregnant can be incredibly easy for some and incredibly difficult for others. For Radner it became impossible to carry a pregnancy to term. Radner decided to go back to the set to distract her mind off her difficulty and started getting sharp pains in her legs and shortness of breath.
She sought medical treatment and consulted many doctors, listened to countless diagnoses that ended up being wrong until finally, they found she had ovarian cancer.
Wilder Thought Radner Was in Remission
The couple obviously rerouted their efforts from getting pregnant to getting Gilda healthy. After a very tough year and a half of chemotherapy and radiotherapy sessions, during which Wilder never left Radner’s side, her cancer went into remission.
The couple was as happy as can be, with Wilder even going back to work on a TriStar Pictures production in which he starred alongside Richard Pryor. Unfortunately, a year later, in 1989, Radner's cancer came back and metastasized. Gilda Radner passed away in May 1989. This made Radner the second person in Wilder's life that he had lost to cancer — the first one being his mother.
Wilder Refused to Do a Film if he Couldn’t Rewrite the Script
Wilder was asked to star in another comedy film titled “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” alongside Richard Pryor. The successful duo was about to strike again! Once he read the script, however, Wilder said the only way he would accept the part was if he could rewrite it, to which the producers said yes.
Ironically, after the film’s release in 1989, critics gave a lot of negative reviews, the main one being the script. Guess it doesn't matter how good you are, no man is immune to a bad review every once in a while. However, Wilder, Pryor, and Kevin Spacey’s performances were praised by all.
Wilder Became Very Involved in Raising Cancer Awareness
It often happens that people with means and funds choose to invest them in causes close to their heart. And what could have been closer to Wilder than his dear wife's passing? After Radner passed away in 1989, Wilder became very involved in raising cancer awareness and promoting causes that offered treatment.
He even founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and also a support group called Gilda’s Club. Gilda’s Club was a support group for cancer patients and survivors that started in New York City and became so big throughout the years that eventually opened branches across the U.S.
He Starred in a Movie Directed by Leonard Nimoy
Wilder drowned himself in work after Radner’s death, and his next project was a romantic comedy directed by none other than Spock himself. Interestingly, the movie had main elements that paralleled with Wilder's life. This must have helped the new widower process his grief. Wilder and director Leonard Nimoy worked together on this film about a political cartoonist, played by Wilder, who has a wife that can’t have children.
The cartoonist ends up falling in love with a sorority girl, played by Mary Stuart Masterson, and is finally able to have a family. Unfortunately, the movie wasn’t a big hit.
His Last Movie With Richard Pryor
After his project with Nimoy was a flop, Wilder was cast to play discharged mental patient Abe Fielding in the 1991 comedy film “Another You.” He starred alongside his old comedy buddy Richard Pryor, who plays a con man that becomes friends with Abe.
At the time they were filming, Pryor’s physical health had significantly deteriorated due to multiple sclerosis, and as it turns out, it was his last time starring in a film. Ironically, it was also Wilder’s last time acting in a feature film. It was only fitting that after so many years of partnership and so many collaborations the two would have their latest project as a joint one.
Wilder Focuses on the Small Screen
“Another You” marked the end of Wilder’s cinematic career, as he shifted to TV shows and movies a year after. In 1994, Wilder wrote his own sitcom, which premiered on NBC, titled “Something Wilder.” Sadly, the show didn’t garner enough ratings to be renewed for a second season.
He then appeared in three TV movies – an adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland”, and two mystery movies that he co-wrote, titled “The Lady in Question” and “Murder in a Small Town.” Those projects showcased Wilder's incredible range: as a comedic writer and an actor who can do anything from quirky to mysterious.
He Won an Emmy for His Role on “Will & Grace”
If you were a fan of the 90’s comedy sitcom “Will & Grace,” then you surely remember Mr. Stein, Will Truman’s boss. He was portrayed by none other than our beloved Wilder back in 1997, and it was fantastic.
In fact, even though Wilder only appeared as a guest actor for two episodes, he won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series. Sadly, though, this was the last time Wilder appeared on screen, as shortly after, he decided to retire and focus on writing and painting. That's right — among the man's many talents there's painting too.
Wilder Described Himself as a Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist
Despite growing up in a conservative Jewish family, as the years passed, Wilder described himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” The description itself sounds like one of his comedy skits, but he truly believed in a combination of the three doctrines. While it sounds like the expression contradicts itself, if you stop and think for a second, you come to realize there is some kind of sense to it.
Throughout his life, he always said that the only rule he truly followed was The Golden Rule, which states, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” A pretty good rule to live by.
Wilder Was a Comedy Genius Like No Other
When Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks partnered up, there was no stopping them. They were like a comedy machine. The American Film Institute compiled a list of the 100 funniest films of all time, and four of them were directed by Mel Brooks and starred Gene Wilder. The actor’s unique comedic talent catapulted Brooks’ most famous films to the top of the Hollywood ladder.
Wilder’s performances in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Silver Streak” set the standard for many future comedy actors. If it weren’t for him, these films wouldn’t have achieved the cult status they have today.
Wilder's Fourth Wife
When Wilder was getting into character and preparing to portray a deaf patient in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” he received lip-reading coaching sessions at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing. His coach was the clinical supervisor of the center, Karen Webb. He had no idea at the time, but Webb was about to become a very important person in his life in just two short years.
After Gilda Radner passed away, Wilder and Karen began speaking again and slowly developed an intimate friendship that evolved into a romantic relationship. They tied the knot in September 1991.
Wilder Struggled With Cancer
After losing both his mother and his wife Gilda Radner to cancer, Wilder found himself facing a similar diagnosis, this time, himself being the patient. In 1999, years after he’d left showbusiness, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and was hospitalized for treatment. He and his wife Karen kept the situation under wraps as best as they could.
After five years of invasive treatments and, ultimately, a stem cell transplant, Wilder gave a public statement confirming his cancer was in total remission. Wilder dedicated his time to watercolor painting, aiding charity organizations, and writing novels. In 2005, he released a very personal memoir titled “Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.”
Wilder Is a Published Author of Four Novels
Wilder was no stranger to writing, having penned several of his films and other projects. But writing became a full-time passion of his in his later years, and he wrote four acclaimed novels. His first one, “My French W@o&e,” was published in 2007 and was a hilarious spy romance that took place in 1918.
His second novel, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t,” was published a year later, in 2008. Wilder’s third novel was released in 2013, and it was a heartwarming tribute to loved ones called “Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance.” His last work was published in 2017, a lovely tale called “Even Dogs Learn How to Swim.”
He Truly Hated Showbusiness
No one can enter show business without passion for their craft. You have to be incredibly devoted to your form of art in order to wade through the big executives and the money they're trying to make. In an interview in 2008, as part of a special segment of Turner Classic Movies, Gene Wilder was interviewed by actor Alec Baldwin. When he was asked about his illustrious career, Wilder admitted that he never liked showbusiness.
“I like show, but I don’t like the business,” said Wilder during the interview. He went on to say that as the years passed, he realized production studios weren’t interested in creative input or quality content. Maybe he was onto something.
Wilder Received 52 Scripts a Year
Many fans wondered why Wilder never returned to the screen, and as it turns out, he finally explained it in a 2013 interview. Wilder was interviewed by “Time Out New York,” and they asked point blank if he would ever consider acting again if the project was something he liked.
Wilder, apparently didn't like any of the offers he was getting, despite getting dozens of them. In his words, “I get 52 scripts a year, and I don’t like any of them”. He continued to say, “I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing, and 3D.” We can’t say we don’t agree.
“Trading Places” Was Meant for Wilder and Pryor
Who can forget the hilarious hit comedy film from 1983, “Trading Places”? This commercial and critical success, directed by John Landis, starred none other than Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. And honestly, it’s hard to imagine anybody else playing this duo.
However, it was Wilder and Richard Pryor who were meant to play the lead roles in the movie. At the last minute, they had to drop out because Pryor was dealing with a severe substance abuse problem. Wilder was a great friend to Pryor during these hard times, even losing an important role to stay by him and help.
He Grew Estranged From His Only Daughter
After Wilder adopted his second wife’s daughter, Katherine, the two became very close. But sadly, after he divorced her mother, he grew apart from Katherine, and she revealed how much the situation had affected her in a personal memoir she released 15 years after the couple had divorced.
It described how they had grown apart after Katherine’s mother suspected Wilder of having an affair while they were married. The supposed "other woman" was Madeline Kahn, who co-starred alongside Wilder in "Young Frankenstein" In an interview with Larry King, Gene Wilder said the story of his daughter was “too sad to tell.”
Wilder Grew Very Close to His Nephew
After Wilder married his fourth wife, Karen, he became very close to his nephew Jordan. Jordan Walker-Pearlman is Wilder’s sister Corinne’s son, and the two became inseparable. In fact, when Wilder passed in 2016, Jordan released a statement about his passing and signed it as “Gene’s nephew/child.” While Wilder wasn't his actual biological father, you can definitely see the family resemblance between the two. They have the same eyes, smile, and shaggy hair.
Jordan ended what was a tearjerking statement with a legendary quote from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” that read: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Wilder Lost His Battle With Alzheimer’s
Gene Wilder passed away at age 83, on August 29, 2016, from complications caused by Alzheimer’s. The sad news came as a shock to the world since no one knew he had even been diagnosed with the conditions three years prior.
Wilder only told his nearest and dearest confidants, who were all with him when he passed away peacefully at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. An outpour of actors, comedians, and celebrities took to social media to pay their tributes. They have all been impacted by the comedic and creative genius and felt like they had to express their gratitude.
Wilder Requested a Song on His Last Moments
Perhaps in what was a totally fitting ending soundtrack to this magical man’s life, Wilder requested to hear his favorite song during his final moments. As he was lying in bed, surrounded by his loved ones, he asked to hear Ella Fitzgerald’s version of the famous song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
This was one of Wilder’s favorite songs, which according to family and friends, never failed to put a smile on his face, even in the darkest of moments. We are sure that the singer would have been proud to know what her music meant to such a legendary entertainer.
His Family Kept His Illness Hidden
Wilder’s fans and even several of his friends and acquaintances were in shock when they learned he’d passed away. The actor had chosen to keep his condition private from the moment he was diagnosed until the moment he passed, and he asked his family to do the same.
After he passed, his family explained why Wilder had been so adamant about keeping his illness private. “He didn’t want to take away the smile of young fans that dreamed of meeting Willy Wonka one day.” His family continued to say, “He valued these smiles more than anything and wanted children to always feel joy without disappointment.”
Mel Brooks Speaks on Wilder’s Passing
Wilder’s passing was a blow for many people, including his close friend of many years, Mel Brooks. The two had worked on so many things together, and for so many years, and had a deep friendship that stretched beyond the limits of the entertainment industry. Shortly after Wilder passed away, Brooks was invited to “The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon,” and he spoke openly about how sad he was.
“He was such a dear friend. I expected that he would go – but when it happens, it’s still tremendous. It’s a big shock. I’m still reeling. No more Gene?...He was such a wonderful part of my life.”
Celebrities Gave Touching Tributes to Wilder
With a career that spanned over five decades, it’s no surprise that there were dozens of celebrities that spoke out when Wilder passed. He wasn’t just a brilliant actor and fellow colleague to many, he was also a man who shaped a great deal of film and television of his time as well as a dear friend.
Celebrities like Billy Crystal, Carl Reiner, Albert Brooks, Julia Louis Dreyfus, Russell Crowe, and many others posted heartwarming tributes on their social media accounts. Going through the different posts left online by all of these entertainment greats will for sure be a tear-jerker.
Wilder Lived a Life of No Regrets
Although he had a few in his personal life, Gene Wilder was a man of conviction and decision in his professional life. So much so that he said many times that he had not a single regret when it came to his professional decisions.
Sure, just like anyone, not all of his projects received the success he had hoped for, but he was still happy with the work he did. Wilder was attached to the roles he played, and he always knew which ones to accept and which ones to say no to. And he never regretted any of those decisions.