He was best known for his portrayal of Willy Wonka in the 1971 blockbuster hit Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. In recent times, he became the poster-child of widely-circulated internet memes featuring his portrayal of the popular icon whom many regard as the legendary “Candy Man”. Some will forever know him only as “Willy Wonka”. But to many of his personal friends, family members, and fans of his other films, he was known as Gene Wilder.
Born into the world as Jerome Silberman, Wilder began his acting career at the young age of 8 after his mother Jeanne was diagnosed with rheumatic fever and her doctor told him to try to “make her laugh”. Over the next decade and a half, he followed his older sister’s footsteps in school; performing on stage and becoming one of her teacher’s students. Wilder eventually graduated high school in 1951 and furthered his academic studies at the University of Iowa where he graduated in 1955 with a degree in Communication and Theatre Arts. He continued pursuing acting and theatrics, attending two different schools and even serving in the U.S. Army after being drafted in 1956. It was not until the age of 26 when Wilder adopted his widely-known stage name, “Gene Wilder”; a tribute to a character in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and Our Town author Thornton Wilder.
Wilder started off his professional career taking on minor roles in a variety of films and at one point, even used his knack for fencing to work as a fencing choreographer. He was cast into his first leading role in 1963 and in 1971 auditioned to play the role of Willy Wonka in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a role that he was eventually cast to play and a role that he would forever be remembered playing.
Towards the latter portion of his life, Wilder took a step back from acting and took to authorship. He wrote two novels and collaborated with other authors on other literary works. His memoir titled Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art was released in 2005 and covered the entirety of his life up until the death of his third wife and fellow actress, Gilda Radner, who passed away from ovarian cancer in 1989.
Outside of his professional life, Wilder participated in many charitable efforts. After Radner’s death, Wilder became an advocate for cancer awareness and research. Many years later in the following weeks after the September 11 attacks, Wilder read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at an event dedicated to helping the families of the victims of the 9/11 attacks. His charitable personality and his selflessness followed him throughout his life all the way up until his passing. In 2013, he was diagnosed with the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease but chose to keep his diagnosis hidden from the public; more so hidden from his younger fans whom he wanted to shield the burdens of his illness from.
Wilder’s last moments in this world were spent holding hands with some of his closest family members by his bed side. His favorite music was playing and just as he took his last breath, one of his favorite songs, Ella Fitzgerald’s “Somewhere over the Rainbow”, played on the radio.
Gene Wilder was 83 years old at the time of his passing.