Gene Wilder, Comedy Legend And ‘Willy Wonka’ Star, Dies At 83

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on June 11, 1933, Gene Wilder became interested in acting at the age of eleven when he saw his older sister perform on stage. Four years later he was performing on stage as Balthasar in a production of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet. After high school he studied Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa. Upon graduation he traveled across the Atlantic to attend the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England.

Wilder, having been drafted into the Army in 1956, chose to serve as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital, in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. This was so he could be close to New York City to attend acting courses at the HB Studio. He adopted the stage name of “Gene Wilder” from two sources. He chose “Wilder” from the playwright Thornton Wilder. “Gene” came from Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel.

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Well known for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it may be Wilder’s collaborations with writer-director Mel Brooks that are most notable. The comedy legend’s first major film role was that of Leopold Bloom in Brooks’ 1968 release The Producers. They would work together again in 1974 on a pair of comedy classics, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, the latter of which garnered him an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Another pairing that proved to be a winning formula was Gene Wilder with Richard Pryor. They starred in four films together: Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).

Wilder lost two very important women in his life due to ovarian cancer. The first was his mother, Jeanne Silberman in 1957. The second was his third wife, comedienne and actress Gilda Radner, with whom they starred in three films. Her passing led to his active involvement in promoting cancer awareness and treatment, including helping found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founding Gilda’s Club.

Moving away from feature films in the early 1990s, Wilder would do some television work before turning his attention to writing. His works include the 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art and the novels The Woman Who Wouldn’t (2008) and Something to Remember You By (2013).

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