Milwaukee’s own Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka’ and Mel Brooks comedies, dead at 83

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Actor Gene Wilder has died at 83, family members confirmed to the Associated Press Monday, August 29th.

He died from complications from Alzheimer’s disease, according to the AP.

Wilder was a Milwaukee native — born Jerome Silberman here in Brew City on June 11th, 1933.

He first started performing for his mother, who was often ill. He graduated from Washington High School in Milwaukee in 1951 and moved east to pursue acting.

While he was instrumental in forming the first Gilda’s Club in New York City to honor his late wife Gilda Radner, he was not involved in the creation of the Gilda’s Club located in Shorewood, which opened in 2004 and closed a few years later.

NEW YORK - MAY 27: Actor Gene Wilder promotes his book 'The Woman Who Wouldn't' at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Center May 27, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – MAY 27: Actor Gene Wilder promotes his book ‘The Woman Who Wouldn’t’ at Barnes & Noble, Lincoln Center May 27, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

Wilder brought a wild-eyed desperation to a series of memorable and iconic comedy roles in the 1970s and 1980s.

Wilder is best known for his collaborations with director Mel Brooks, starring as the stressed-out Leo Bloom in Brooks’ breakout 1967 film “The Producers” and later in the monster movie spoof “Young Frankenstein.” He also portrayed a boozing gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles.”

For many people, Wilder might be best remembered for “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” playing the mysterious candy tycoon in the 1971 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book.

In a statement to CNN on Monday, Brooks called Wilder “one of the truly great talents of our time.”

“He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship,” Brooks wrote.

Wilder died due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, which he struggled with for three years, his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement to CNN.

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Wilder chose not to disclose his illness, the statement added.

“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said.

In the years after “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” Wilder continued to star in numerous comedies, with less consistent success. That included several films with Richard Pryor, including “Stir Crazy” and “Silver Streak,” as well as solo vehicles like “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother” and “The World’s Greatest Lover,” which he also directed.

In a 2005 interview with CNN, Wilder discussed how he met Brooks, having been cast in a play opposite the director’s then-girlfriend, Anne Bancroft.

“That led to ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ and ‘Young Frankenstein,’ but because I was miscast in a play,” Wilder said. “And it changed my life.”

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder

Wilder was married to “Saturday Night Live” regular Gilda Radner for five years until her death in 1989.

He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Wilder.

Wilder’s friends, co-workers and admirers were quick to pay tribute to the actor on Monday after the news of his death.

“Bless you for all these years of laughter and love, such warmth and humanity,” wrote film critic Leonard Maltin.

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder

Debra Messing, former star of “Will & Grace,” a show on which Wilder guest-starred, said, “A man who lit up the world with his joy and genius. I can’t say what it meant to act with him and get to know his heart.”

Gene Wilder

Gene Wilder

Below is Wilder’s IMDB biography:

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Jeanne (Baer) and William J. Silberman, who manufactured miniature whiskey and beer bottles. His father was a Russian Jewish immigrant, while his Illinois-born mother was of Russian Jewish descent.

Wilder caught his first big break playing a small role in the off-Broadway production ofArnold Wesker’s “Roots” and followed quickly with his Broadway debut as the comic valet in “The Complaisant Lover” (both 1961), for which he won the Clement Derwent Award. His other Broadway credits included “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1963, with Kirk Douglas), “The White House” (1964, with Helen Hayes) and “Luv” (1966), but it was a 1963 Broadway production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” that altered the course of his life forever. In its cast was Anne Bancroft, who was dating Mel Brooksat the time, and the relationship established between the two men eventually led to Wilder’s becoming part of Brooks’ “stock company”. Wilder’s Actor’s Studio connection may have helped him land his first feature, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), in which he drew much favourable attention in a small but memorable role as a frightened young undertaker abducted by the legendary duo. Wilder’s performance as the endearingly frantic Leo Bloom in The Producers (1967) kicked off his celebrated collaboration withMel Brooks and garnered him an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actor. His career gained momentum as he played a swashbuckler in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), the candy impresario of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory(1971) and a sheep-smitten doctor in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to Ask (1972). Wilder re-teamed with Mel Brooks for the inspired lunacy of Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974), earning his second Oscar nomination for his first-time screen-writing efforts (along with Mel Brooks) on the latter. Spurred by these triumphs, Wilder made his directorial debut (in addition to acting and starring) with The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975). His first association with Richard Pryor had come on Blazing Saddles(1974), but Richard Pryor (co-screenwriter) had lost out in his bid for the Cleavon Littlerole. Richard Pryor and Wilder first acted together in the highly entertaining and commercially successful Silver Streak (1976) and scored at the box office again withStir Crazy (1980), but their later efforts were mediocre. Ironically, Hanky Panky(1982), Wilder’s first of three films with his late wife Gilda Radner, originally was written to pair him with Richard Pryor again, but Richard Pryor’s unavailability necessitated rewriting the part for Gilda Radner.

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