Gene Wilder, whose likeness became synonymous with the energetic and mysterious chocolatier Willy Wonka and was an often high-strung presence in a series of Mel Brooks comedies, died Sunday in his Stamford, Conn., home of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Beyond the movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Wilder captured audiences with his leading roles in “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “Young Frankenstein.” He collaborated with fellow Jewish entertainer Mel Brooks on the latter three.
Brooks tweeted Monday afternoon, saying: “Gene Wilder [was] 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.”
Ilya Tovbis, director of the Washington Jewish Film Festival, believes Wilder’s work with Brooks “grandly changed the complexion of American comedy and cinema.” With his “quirky looks,” subtle humor in everyday situations and wide range of roles, Wilder’s accomplishments are comparable to few others in his field, Tovbis said.
“From a Jewish perspective, he integrated Jewish humor, values and culture into mainstream American culture in a way that is only on par with someone like Woody Allen,” he added.
“Young Frankenstein” (1974), for which Wilder and Brooks shared an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, moved past the two-dimensional, physical comedy that was prevalent at the time to something more complex and multilayered, Tovbis said.
“Wilder always had an outsider’s perspective,” he said, referring to the actor’s time at Black Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, where by Wilder’s account, he was the only Jewish boy and was bullied incessantly. “A lot of his comedy [incorporates] that lack of ability to fit in,” Tovbis said.
Asked about his favorite Wilder movie, Tovbis didn’t hesitate with his answer.
“‘Young Frankenstein.’ What he did with that movie holds up [today]. “Blazing Saddles” , which I found laugh-out-loud funny at the time, hasn’t aged as well.”
Gene Wilder was a stage name. He was born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, to Jeanne Baer and William J. Silberman, a Russian Jewish immigrant.
Wilder was married four times, including to Jewish comedian Gilda Radner in 1984. Radner, widely known as an original cast member of “Saturday Night Live,” died of ovarian cancer in 1989.
After her death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and research, co-founding “Gilda’s Club,” a nonprofit organization providing support to those affected by cancer.
In 1991, he married Karen Webb, a speech therapist, and the couple remained together until Wilder’s death.
Wilder told Abigail Pogrebin, who authored a book about prominent Jews discussing their heritage, about his religious views:
“I’m going to tell you what my religion is. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito. I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”
JTA News and Features contributed to this article.