Willy Wonka is dead…
To be more precise, the actor who originally portrayed the eccentric chocolate factory owner in the 1971 movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel recently suffered complications from Alzheimer’s disease and left the stage on the 29th August at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. He was 83 years old.
It’s hard to believe that the laughing, joking, tufty-blonde guy whom I had come to know and love during my childhood – through perennial re-runs of 70s and 80s films on Italian channels – had become so old. I had always, somehow, continued to remember him as the funny blue-eyed deaf guy in See no Evil, Hear no Evil (1989), but there you have it.
Gene Wilder’s actual name was Jerome Silberman. Although he performed various roles on stage and then later on in T.V. series and low-budget movies, his first actual breakthrough was his portrayal of Leopold Bloom in The Producers (1968), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He was 35 years old at the time. The Producers marked the beginning of a long collaborative career with fellow actor and film-producer Mel Brooks, who recognised Wilder’s comedic talent. Together, they worked on such films as Blazing Saddles (1974) – a satirical Western comedy where Wilder plays two supporting roles, that of a gunslinger and that of an Indian Chief.
In 1974, the comedic-horror cult classic Young Frankenstein followed, with Gene starring as the title character. Being a parody of the horror genre, this film was shot entirely in black and white in order to evoke the flavour of older classic horror movies.
Wilder is, however, undoubtedly most well-known for his iconic portrayal of Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as well as the four movies which see him as part of a comic duo with actor Richard Prior – Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980), See no Evil, Hear no Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).
This last one actually marks Wilder’s last appearance in a feature film. Perhaps after Prior’s death of multiple sclerosis in 2005, and Wilder’s third wife’s death of ovarian cancer in 1989, he began losing the verve he had once had in the movie industry. After 1999 in fact, Wilder only appeared on the small screen, mostly doing guest appearances.
Following his wife, actress Gilda Radner’s death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and treatment. He founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Centre in Los Angeles and helped fund Gilda’s Club, a support group. He remarried again three years later.
Image: Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder
In his later life, Wilder turned to literature. He co-wrote the book Gilda’s Disease (1998) with Steven Piver, and released his personal memoir Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art in 2005. In 2007, he published his first novel, My French Whore, and his second novel, The Woman Who Wouldn’t, was released in 2008. He also published a collection of short stories called What Is This Thing Called Love? in 2010, and his third novel, Something to Remember You By: A Perilous Romance in 2013.
Although Wilder is famous for his funny quirky smile, his light blue eyes, his free-flying blonde hair and his pungent wit, when watching him on screen, I always felt that there was also a deep-seated love of romance in his character. An old-world gentleman’s charm. Seeing that all his novels are love stories that tackle romance and relationships, I was not so wrong in feeling this. Or maybe I was just romanticising an actor who coloured my childhood and adolescence with such a beautiful array of emotional hope and quizzical laughter, as to be almost mythical.
The truth remains that Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, enriched the lives of more than one generation, and for that, he will surely not be forgotten any time soon.