Gene Wilder, star of 'Willy Wonka' and Mel Brooks classics, dies at 83

Gene Wilder, Star of 'Willy Wonka' and Others, Dies at 83

Gene Wilder, the leading man with the comic flair and frizzy hair known for teaming with Mel Brooks on the laugh-out-loud masterpieces The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, has died, his family told The Associated Press. He was 83.

The two-time Oscar nominee also starred as a quirky candy man in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) and in four films alongside stand-up legend Richard Pryor.

SEE ALSO: Celebrities react to Gene Wilder's death

In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma and treated with radiation and stem cell transplants.

Wilder will forever be remembered for his ill-fated Hollywood romance with Gilda Radner. Less than two years after they were married, the popular Saturday Night Live star was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and died on May 20, 1989, at age 42.

See photos of Gene Wilder through the years:

Gene Wilder through the years
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Gene Wilder through the years
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka and Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket on the set of the fantasy film 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory', based on the book by Roald Dahl, 1971. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Actor Gene Wilder (right) puts his arm around the shoulder of Cleavon Little in a still from the film, 'Blazing Saddles,' directed by Mel Brooks, 1974. (Photo by Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty Images)
1974-Publicity headshot of Gene Wilder starring in Young Frankenstein. (Photo by �� John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
THE BELL SYSTEM FAMILY THEATRE -- 'The Trouble with People' -- Pictured: Gene Wilder as Ernie in 'The Office Sharers' -- (Photo by: Art Selby & Al Levine/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Promotional shot of actor Gene Wilder, as he appears in the movie 'The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother', 1975. (Photo by Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images)
Gene Wilder. December 04, 1980. (Photo by Adam Scull/New York Post Archives / (c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty Images)
Gene Wilder and Kelly LeBrock in publicity portrait for the film 'The Woman In Red', 1984. (Photo by Orion/Getty Images)
Gene Wilder holds a torch in a scene from the film 'Hanky Panky', 1982. (Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images)
American actor Gene Wilder (L) performs alongside compatriot Rolf Saxon, October 2, during the rehearsal of a scene from Neil Simon's 'Laughter on the 23rd Floor'.
1999 Gene Wilder Stars As The 'Turtle' In The Tv Movie 'Alice In Wonderland.' (Photo By Getty Images)
Gene Wilder during Opening of Gilda's Club for Cancer Support - October 17, 1993 at Gilda's Club, Greenwhich Village in New York City, New York, United States. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
NEW YORK - MARCH 15: Actor Gene Wilder signs copies of his new book at Barnes and Noble in Midtown Manhattan March 15, 2005 in New York City. (Photo by Fernando Leon/Getty Images)
Gene Wilder in Beverly Hills, California (Photo by Jesse Grant/WireImage)
NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 05: Gene Wilder and his wife Karen Boyer watch as Shahar Peer of Israel takes on Anna Chakvetadze of Russia during day ten of the 2007 U.S. Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 5, 2007 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

In 1963, the Milwaukee native appeared on Broadway opposite Anne Bancroft in Jerome Robbins' Mother Courage and Her Children. The actress introduced Wilder to Brooks, her future husband, and the couple invited him to Fire Island, where he got a look at the first 30 pages of a screenplay titled Springtime for Hitler.

"Three years went by, never heard from [Brooks]," Wilder told Larry King in a 2002 interview. "I didn't get a telegram. I didn't get a telephone call. And I'm doing a play called Love on Broadway, matinee, taking off my makeup.

"Knock-knock on the door, I open the door. There's Mel. He said, 'You don't think I forgot, do you? We're going to do Springtime for Hitler. But I can't just cast you. You've got to meet [star] Zero [Mostel] first, tomorrow at 10 o'clock.'

"[The next day] the door opens. There's Mel. He says come on in. 'Z, this is Gene. Gene, this is Z. And I put out my hand tentatively. And Zero grabbed my hand, pulls me to him and kisses me on the lips. All my nervousness went away. And then we did the reading and I got the part. And everything was fine."

Here are some of the movies that Gene Wilder was in:

Most popular Gene Wilder movies
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Most popular Gene Wilder movies
Stir Crazy (1980)

Springtime for Hitler, of course, would become The Producers (1968), written and directed by Brooks. For his portrayal of stressed-out accountant Leopold Bloom in his first major movie role, Wilder earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor.

Brooks cast Gig Young for the part of the washed-up gunfighter The Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles(1974), but the actor, who was an alcoholic, got sick playing his first scene and had to be taken away by ambulance.

See how celebrities reacted to Gene Wilder's death:

Celebs react to death of Gene Wilder
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Celebs react to death of Gene Wilder
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.
The greatest comedic mind of my childhood is now gone. #RIP #GeneWilder & thank you 4 your pure imagination. This one hits hard.
The genius, the talent, the actor, the original, the artist, the storyteller, the creative, the iconic, the great, great, great Gene Wilder.
When Gene Wilder walked into the meeting with that incredible perm in THE WOMAN IN RED, and he didn't even reference it. #RIP
Actor Gene Wilder has passed away.. he was 83.. Thxs for all the joy you gave to my life Mr. Wilder, RIP
Oh, no. Gene Wilder. Seriously one of the funniest humans ever. Sad. RIP
I'll never forget how happy my father was to show me Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel in "The Producers." Theirs was a comedic masterclass....
Thank you Gene Wilder for the wonderful, the weird, the pure imagination. One of my greatest heroes. 🎩
R.I.P Gene Wilder. As funny as they come.
RIP to a true original and one of the all time greats Gene Wilder. I loved him.
So many great Gene Wilder films. But I must've seen Stir Crazy a hundred times as a kid #RIP #GreatTalent
Gene Wilder marathon starting now at my pad, Come over✨ Thanks Mr. Wilder, we'll miss you every step up of the way.
I loved him so much. Just looking at Gene Wilder always made my heart smile. Rest in peace.

"I called Gene and said, "What do I do?" Brooks recalled in a 2014 interview with Parademagazine. "Gene said, "Just get a horse for me to try out and a costume that fits and I'll do it." And he flew out and he did it. Saved my life."

While working on Blazing Saddles, Wilder fiddled with an outline he had written for Young Frankenstein and asked Brooks to do it with him. Wilder played Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, who creates a monster just like his grandfather, and he and Brooks shared a screenplay Oscar nom for the 1974 classic, released in theaters just 10 months after Blazing Saddles.

(It was Wilder's idea to have Frankenstein and his monster (Peter Boyle) do the song-and-dance number, "Puttin' on the Ritz.")

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For the 1971 musical fantasy based on Roald Dahl's 1964 book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fred Astaire and Joel Grey were recommended for the role of Willy Wonka. But director Mel Stuart wanted Wilder.

"He had been in The Producers, but he wasn't a superstar," Stuart told The Washington Post in 2005. "I looked at him and I knew in my heart there could only be one person who could play Willy Wonka. He walked to the elevator after he read and I ran after him and I said, 'As far as I'm concerned, you've got it.' "

Wilder and Pryor — who was a writer on Blazing Saddles — first teamed up on the train comedySilver Streak (1976), followed by Stir Crazy (1980), See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989) and Another You (1991), with Wilder writing and directing the latter pair.

Wilder was born in Milwaukee as Jerry Silberman on June 11, 1933. His father was a Russian immigrant who imported and sold miniature beer and whiskey bottles. His mother had a heart attack when he was 6, leaving her an invalid.

The young boy got his start in comedy by trying to perk up his bedridden mother's spirits (she died when he was 23).

In high school, Wilder played Willy Loman in his own adaptation of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, graduated from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in theater and studied at the Old Vic School in Bristol, England.

While overseas, he became the first American to win the all-school fencing championship, a skill he put to use when he starred as a swashbuckler in Start the Revolution Without Me (1970), directed by Bud Yorkin.

Returning to the U.S., Wilder was drafted into the U.S. Army. While stationed outside of Philadelphia at Valley Forge Medial Hospital — he worked as an aide in a psychiatric ward and helped administer electroshock therapy to patients — he commuted to New York twice a week to study acting with Herbert Berghof.

Following his discharge, he changed his name — Wilder is from Thornton Wilder, Gene is from the main character in the Thomas Wolfe novel Look Homeward, Angel —and studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio.

In 1961, Wilder landed a part in the off-Broadway play Roots, then played a comic valet on Broadway in Graham Greene's The Complaisant Lover, for which he earned a Clarence Derwent Award.

He also thrived on the stage in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest as the repressed Billy Bibbit (played by Brad Dourif in the 1975 film adaptation) and as John Quincy Adams, Rutherford B. Hayes and other characters opposite Helen Hayes in The White House.

Wilder made his motion picture debut in Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde (1967), playing undertaker Eugene Grizzard from Milwaukee who, along with his nervous new bride Velma (Evans Evans, then the wife of director John Frankenheimer), is kidnapped by the outlaws.

Wilder accessed his zanier side as an Irish manure peddler in Quackser Fortune Has a Cousin in the Bronx (1970) and as a doctor with a yen for sheep in Woody Allen's Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (1972).

Flush with the success of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, Wilder made his directorial debut in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975), which he also wrote and starred in. He went on to write, direct and star in The World's Greatest Lover (1977), for which he also composed a song performed by Harry Nilsson, and played a bumbling Polish rabbi in the Old West in The Frisco Kid (1979).

On television, Wilder starred as an older father of 4-year-old twins in his short-lived 1994-95 NBC sitcom Something Wilder; portrayed Cash Carter, a community-theater director who solves murders, in a pair of 1999 telefilms for A&E; and won a guest-actor Emmy in 2003 for playing Eric McCormack's boss on NBC's Will & Grace.

Twice divorced, Wilder met Radner while they were starring in the comedy Hanky Panky, directed by Sidney Poitier (1982). She was married to Saturday Night Live bandleader G.E. Smith at the time.

Radner divorced Smith, and she and Wilder were wed on Sept. 14, 1984, in the south of France. They appeared together in The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986) before she was found to have stage 4 ovarian cancer in October 1986.

Wilder titled his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, something Radner had once said to him. "I had no idea why she said it," he once offered.

In September 1991, Wilder married his fourth wife, Karen Webb. She was from the New York League for the Hard of Hearing and had coached him in the art of lip reading in preparation for his role as a deaf man in See No Evil, Hear No Evil.

More details on Gene Wilder's death:
Gene Wilder Dead at 83 [BREAKING NEWS]

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