(PHOTO: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(RNN) – Gene Wilder, longtime actor, screenwriter, director, author and popular movie star of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factoryfame, has died, according to his family.
Wilder was known for a string of iconic roles in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, including leads in The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.
His nephew confirmed to The Associated Press he died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease in Stamford, CT.
The actor was not always known as Gene Wilder, however, and took the stage name at the age of 26.
Instead, he was born Jerome Silberman in 1933 in Milwaukee, WI. As a young child, he wrote in his memoir, he dealt with his mother’s frequent health problems. He said he became interested in acting at the age of 8 after his mother’s first heart attack when a doctor told him to never argue with his mother and try to make her laugh.
Inspired by his older sister Corinne’s theatrical performances, Wilder said he asked to begin studying with her teacher, but was told to come back at age 13. However, he was shipped off instead to a military school in Hollywood, Black/Foxe, where he said he was sexually assaulted and beaten for being the only Jewish boy in school.
After he went home for Christmas and his mother discovered his bruises, he left school and returned home where he began studying acting and trying out for local performances. His first public performance was in Romeo and Juliet as Balthasar, a two-line minor role but just the beginning of a long career. He graduated high school in 1951 and went on to the University of Iowa, and then the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol, England.
In 1956 Wilder was drafted into the Army and served for three years as a paramedic at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Phoenixville, PA. Following his mother’s death, and his discharge in 1958, he was accepted into the Actors Studio where he came up with his stage name, Gene Wilder, for his role as Macbeth.
Wilder continued his theater career as he branched out into minor roles on television and then eventually the big screen, but despite an Academy Award nomination for supporting actor in The Producers, it wasn’t until his role as Willy Wonka in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that he hit it big.
What followed was a string of successful films that catapulted Wilder to star status and cemented his fame in Hollywood.
Wilder went through four marriages, the first briefly to Mary Mercier from 1960 to 1965 while he studied in New York. After their divorce Wilder soon began dating Mary Joan Schutz, a friend of his sister, who had a daughter named Katharine from her previous marriage. Wilder married Schutz and adopted Katharine, but the marriage lasted only seven years and ended in 1974.
At the height of his career, Wilder married his third wife, Saturday Night Live regular, comedian and actress Gilda Radner, in 1984. After struggling to conceive and increasing health problems, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986. She battled the disease with radiation and chemotherapy and was pronounced in remission, but ultimately succumbed to the disease in 1989.
After her death, Wilder became an activist in promoting cancer awareness and treatment and helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center and Gilda’s Club, which raises cancer awareness throughout the country.
Wilder originally met his fourth wife, Karen Webb Boyer, who was a clinical supervisor for the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, while preparing for a role as a deaf man in the moveSee No Evil, Hear No Evil. After Radner’s death they got back in touch, and they married in 1991, remaining together in Wilder’s semi-retirement.
After a short TV series from 1994 to 1995, Something Wilder, Wilder retired from movies, playing the occasional role for television. His last notable role for television was as an eccentric boss, Mr. Stein, in the long-running series Will & Grace.
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Article Courtesy of WOIO Cleveland 19 News
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