On August 29, 2016, we said farewell to comedy legend Gene Wilder, who passed away from complications
of Alzheimer's disease at 83.
Wilder's work left an indelible impression, especially his classic collaborations with
Mel Brooks, Mel Stuart, Woody Allen, and Richard Pryor.
As we take the time to mark his passing and celebrate his career, let's take a look back
at his life and explore some things you probably didn't know about this beloved star.
Gene Wilder Wasn't His Real Name
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
His father and maternal grandparents were Russian-Jewish immigrants.
While Wilder identified as Jewish, he never considered himself particularly religious.
"What do you call this book?"
In his 2005 memoir, Wilder explained:
"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."
As his acting career took off in off-Broadway stage productions, he decided he needed a
"And I didn't want to be introduced as Jerry Silberman.
I couldn't picture 'Jerry Silberman in Hamlet.'"
He chose Gene for both a cousin he admired and the character of Eugene Gant in the novel
Look Homeward, Angel.
The last name Wilder was inspired by Thornton Wilder, an author whose work he greatly enjoyed.
Meeting With Mel
Wilder's acting career started with stage productions, both on and off-Broadway.
After a role in the 1961 production of Roots, Wilder took a role in 1963's The Complaisant
Lover, for which he received a Derwent Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Non-featured
His next stage role, in Mother Courage and Her Children, helped forge a life-altering
"I was in a play, called Mother Courage, by Bertolt Brecht, starring Anne Bancroft, whose
boyfriend was Mel Brooks.
And Mel came by to pick her up each evening after the show."
Brooks helped Wilder though a scene that he was struggling with, and the rest is history.
Brooks was writing a screenplay called Springtime for Hitler, which would eventually become
the 1968 movie The Producers.
Brooks felt that Wilder was perfect for the role of Leo Bloom, and his Oscar-nominated
appearance in the movie launched his budding film career.
"No stop I cannot function in these conditions!
You're making me extremely nervous."
Willy Wonka's Amazing Introduction
When Wilder auditioned for the title role in 1971's Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,
director Mel Stuart offered Wilder the part practically on the spot.
Wilder accepted, but under one condition—he wanted to give audiences a very special first
introduction to Wonka.
Wilder told Stuart:
"I'd like to do it if i could come out and all the crowd quiets down and I'm using a
'Oh my god, Willy Wonka is crippled.'
And I walk slowly, and you can hear a pin drop.
And my cane gets stuck in a brick.
And I do...I fall over on my face and do a forward somersault and jump up, and they all
start to applaud.
Mel Stuart said, 'What do you want to do that for?'
Because no one will no from that point on whether I'm lying or telling the truth."
When Wilder and Richard Pryor paired up in the hit 1976 film Silver Streak, they struck
comedy gold, revealing a seemingly effortless screen chemistry they'd be called upon to
recapture repeatedly throughout their careers.
According to director John Landis, if it hadn't had been for Pryor's problems with addiction,
we would have seen them star in Trading Places instead of Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy.
Wilder married Mary Mercier in 1960, and after a divorce, was married again in 1967 to Mary
But after his second divorce in 1974, he remained unattached.
That was until 1981, when he met Saturday Night Live actress Gilda Radner on the set
of the movie Hanky Panky.
"Live from New York, it's Saturday Night!"
They married in 1984, but the marriage would be cut short by devastating news.
Radner started experiencing fatigue and upper leg pain while filming 1986's Haunted Honeymoon,
and after several false diagnoses, she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer, which
took her life in 1989.
"And I did believe, with all my heart, that she was going to pull through and survive.
I was an idiot."
During the filming of See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Wilder met Karen Webb, who coached him
in lip-reading for the role.
"I had no idea.
"Now you know.
Can I get the job?"
After Radner's death, the two reconnected, marrying in 1991.
Webb and Wilder would remain together until his passing in 2016.
He Didn't Miss Hollywood
After retiring from acting, Wilder only offered a handful of interviews.
In his exhaustive 2002 interview with Larry King, Wilder revealed why he hadn’t been
seen in Hollywood for years: he simply doesn’t like it.
"I don't want it to come out funny, but I don't like show business.
I love acting in films.
I love it.
I love painting.
I like the show but I don't like the business."
He Beat Cancer
Wilder himself was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999.
After undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments, his lymphoma entered remission,
but doctors let Wilder know there was a good chance the cancer would return.
His oncologist recommended a stem-cell transplant.
"After the radiation and the chemo, they came in, thawed out the stem cells, saying 'Happy
Birthday' to me.
And I said what?
'This is the beginning of your new life.'"
The radical treatment worked, and the cancer was in complete remission by 2002.
But by 2013, Wilder would be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, which took his life in
Ella Fitzgerald Helped Him Say Goodbye
Wilder loved Fitzgerald's music, and his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman described Gene's final
moments in a statement from the family:
"As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker—which was
set to random—began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald.
There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that [was
among his] cherished possessions.
She was singing 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' as he was taken away."
Thanks for watching!
Subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch more videos like the one you just saw.
And leave us a comment to let us know which Gene Wilder role is your favorite.