An era has ended. Iconic Jewish comedian, actor and author Gene Wilder has passed away at the age of 83, his family said in a statement Monday.
The actor died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Stamford, Connecticut. Although he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, he managed to beat the disease several years later with chemotherapy and a stem cell transplant.
“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones — this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality,” his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.
“He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the the company of beloved ones.”
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee to a Russian emigre father and a mother of Polish descent, both Jewish, Wilder began to study acting at age 12 — an occupation he took on after his mother’s heart attack, and the doctor told the young eight-year-old never to argue with her, but rather to try and make his mother laugh. He later earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Iowa in 1955. One year later he was drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces and served for the next three years as a paramedic at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, PA. He was accepted into the Actors Studio following his discharge in 1958, taking the stage name, Gene Wilder at age 26.
He cared for his third wife, acclaimed comedienne Gilda Radner, as she slowly wasted away from ovarian cancer and then for several years worked only sporadically after her death in 1989, deeply depressed. He last acted in 2003, winning an Emmy for his role as Mr. Stein on the TV sitcom “Will & Grace.”
Wilder helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles, and Gilda’s Club support network, and with his wife Karen quietly donated to families whose were affected by the Sept. 11, 2001 Al Qaeda attacks on the United States.
He wrote a number of books, including a painfully detailed autobiography, but Wilder is best known for his work with Jewish director-producer-writer Mel Brooks and actor Richard Pryor. The actor brought tears of laughter to audiences with his performances in hit films like “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” “Young Frankenstein,” “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” and “Stir Crazy.”
He is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, whom he married in 1991, and his nephew.
Baruch Dayan HoEmes.
Hana Levi Julian