Gene Wilder (June 11, 1933 – August 29, 2016)
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee to Russian Jewish descent parents, his father manufactured miniature whiskey and beer bottles. Meanwhile, Wilder made his screen debut in 1961 on the TV series The Play of the Week. His first film role was in 1967 as a hostage in Bonnie and Clyde. But his breakout role was also in 1967 in The Producers. This film led to several collaborations with writer/director Mel Brooks. Another highlight in his career came in 1971 when he starred as Willy Wonka in a little film known as Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (but more on that later).
He continued his acting career in both film and TV until his retirement in 2013 to focus on writing, including a memoir, a collection of stories and three novels.
Wilder was married four times. He adopted his second wife’s daughter Katharine in 1967 (a very big year in Wilder’s life). Wilder and Katharine eventually became estranged after he and her mother divorced. He married actress and comedian Gilda Radner in September 1984. They remained married until Radner’s death in May 1989. (Wilder dedicated most of his life afterwards to promotion for cancer awareness and treatment; founding the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and Gilda’s Club.) In September 1991 he married Karen Boyer until his death in 2016. (They lived in the house he shared with Radner.)
Wilder died at age 83 on August 29, 2016 at his home in Stamford, Connecticut listening to his favorite song: Ella Fitzgerald’s Over the Rainbow. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2013 but kept the condition private. Only after his death was it revealed because Wilder did not want to disappoint the fans of Willy Wonka. Throughout his life, children would point, call out and smile that there was Willy Wonka and Wilder did not want to expose these young people to an adult referencing illnesses or troubles so the delight of spying Wonka would turn to worry or disappointment or worse confusion. Wilder couldn’t bear the thought of one less smile in the world, according to his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman.