Gene Wilder, star of 'Willy Wonka,' 'Young Frankenstein' and 'Blazing Saddles,' dies at 83

In this April 9, 2008 file photo, actor Gene Wilder listens as he is introduced to receive the Governor's Awards for Excellence in Culture and Tourism at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn. [AP photo]
In this April 9, 2008 file photo, actor Gene Wilder listens as he is introduced to receive the Governor's Awards for Excellence in Culture and Tourism at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn. [AP photo]
Published Aug. 30, 2016

Gene Wilder hadn't made a movie in 25 years when he died Monday at age 83, at his Stamford, Conn., home.

The long absence doesn't matter. Neither does Mr. Wilder's relatively slim body of work; barely two dozen feature films.

One role is all Mr. Wilder needed to be eternally mourned.

He's forever the mischievous moralist Willy Wonka, whose chocolate factory tour remains a rite of cinematic passage for young viewers, or those needing reminders of what being young is like.

Everything else in this remarkably gentle performer's career is icing on the Everlasting Gobstopper.

Mr. Wilder's signature persona — a dewy-eyed neurotic Mel Brooks likened to a sheep surrounded by wolves — was forged in his 1967 screen debut, a brief but memorable ride in the backseat of Bonnie and Clyde's getaway car. The next year Mr. Wilder earned a best supporting actor Academy Award nomination for Brooks' The Producers, opposite the tornadic actor Zero Mostel.

After a pair of counterculture Hollywood flops, Mr. Wilder auditioned for Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, prompting director Mel Stuart to offer the role. Mr. Wilder hesitated until Stuart allowed him to be introduced severely limping, then suddenly, acrobatically fit.

Stuart asked why. "Because," Mr. Wilder said, "from that time on, no one will know if I'm lying or telling the truth."

Although not immediately successful, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory became Mr. Wilder's most treasured role. In later years, he told interviewers about basking in attention from children excited to meet the candy man, led to him by parents equally thrilled.

In 1971, Mr. Wilder spoke about the movie's initially poor reception, largely based on a perception of its harshness in punishing bad children.

"The children understood the movie very well," he said in 1971. "That there are limits. And they want to know the limits. And it's reassuring to know that someone can tell you what the limits are, and that's what Willy Wonka did."

Mr. Wilder's own limits hadn't been reached. In 1974, Brooks called and asked for a favor. The director had hired Oscar winner Gig Young to play an alcoholic gunslinger in his next movie, Blazing Saddles. The trouble was, Young was an actual alcoholic, passing out sick on the first day of shooting.

Mr. Wilder agreed to help his friend, and the Waco Kid became another widely quotable role, for an entirely different audience. Brooks' Western movie spoof can still shock with its in-your-face satire of racial intolerance. Mr. Wilder's calm was a key counterpoint to Brooks' comedic storm.

Two important career steps for Mr. Wilder came from Blazing Saddles: Brooks agreed to make Young Frankenstein from Wilder's original screenplay — the pair would share an Oscar nomination — and the actor met Richard Pryor, who was a co-writer of Blazing Saddles.

Together, Mr. Wilder and the late comedian were briefly Hollywood's hottest comedy duo, starting with 1976's Silver Streak, and continuing four years later with Stir Crazy, an even bigger hit.

Planning your weekend?

Planning your weekend?

Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter

We’ll deliver ideas every Thursday for going out, staying home or spending time outdoors.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

That film's director, Oscar winner Sidney Poitier, began developing a screenplay with Mr. Wilder that became Hanky Panky, a comedy that introduced him to Gilda Radner, whom he married in 1984. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1989 — a week after Mr. Wilder's third collaboration with Pryor, See No Evil, Hear No Evil — effectively began Mr. Wilder's receding from the spotlight.

Aside from a few TV movies, Mr. Wilder settled into writing, producing a 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art; a collection of stories and three novels, the last appropriately titled Something to Remember You By.

In Mr. Wilder's case, that's everything he did in movies.

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.