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Movies|Gene Wilder Dies at 83; Star of 'Willy Wonka' and 'Young Frankenstein' - New York Times

New York TimesMovies|Gene Wilder Dies at 83; Star of 'Willy Wonka' and 'Young Frankenstein'New York TimesMr. Wilder with Oompa Loompas in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” It remains one of the roles with which Mr. Wilder is most closely identified. Credit Paramount Pictures, via Photofest. Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America's ...Gene Wilder, Star of 'Willy Wonka' and Mel Brooks Classics, Dies at 83Hollywood ReporterGene Wilder, Beloved Star of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Dies at 83People MagazineGene Wilder, Willy Wonka and Blazing Saddles star, dies at 83Entertainment WeeklyUSA TODAY -RollingStone.com -E! Online -CNNall 417 news articles »

Gene Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee on June 11, 1933. His father, William, a manufacturer and salesman of novelty items, was an immigrant from Russia. His mother, the former Jeanne Baer, suffered from a rheumatic heart and a temperament that sometimes led her to punish him angrily and then smother him with regretful kisses.

Young Jerry spent one semester at the Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood. His mother saw it as a great opportunity; in reality it was a catch-basin for boys from broken families, where he was regularly beaten up for being Jewish.

Safe back home after that misadventure, he played minor roles in community theater productions and then followed his older sister, Corinne, into the theater program at the University of Iowa. After Iowa he studied Shakespeare at the Bristol Old Vic Theater School in England, where he was the first freshman to win the school fencing championship.

He next enrolled part-time at the HB Studio in New York, while also serving a two-year Army hitch as an aide in the psychiatric unit of the Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania — an assignment he requested because, he said, “I imagined the things I would see there might relate more to acting than any of the other choices.” He added, “I wasn’t wrong.”

After his discharge he won a coveted spot at the Actors Studio, and it was then that he adopted the name Gene Wilder: Gene for Eugene Gant, the protagonist of Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” and Wilder for the playwright Thornton Wilder.

In his first major role on Broadway Mr. Wilder played the chaplain in a 1963 production of Bertolt Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children.” The production ran for less than two months, and he came to believe he had been miscast. The good news was that he met the boyfriend of the star, Anne Bancroft: Mel Brooks, who wore a pea coat the night he met Mr. Wilder backstage and told him, “You know, they used to call these urine jackets, but they didn’t sell.”

So began the conversation that ultimately led to “The Producers.”

Mr. Wilder’s association with Mr. Brooks led in turn to one with Richard Pryor, who was one of the writers of “Blazing Saddles” (and Mr. Brooks’s original choice for the part ultimately played by Mr. Little). In 1976 Mr. Pryor was third-billed behind Mr. Wilder and Jill Clayburgh in “Silver Streak,” a comic thriller about murder on a transcontinental train. The two men went on to star in the 1982 box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” in which they played a hapless pair jailed for a crime they didn’t commit, as well as “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” (1989) and “Another You” (1991).

Mr. Wilder’s first two marriages, to Mary Mercier and Mary Joan Schutz, ended in divorce. In 1982, he met the “Saturday Night Live” comedian Gilda Radner when they were both cast in the suspense comedy “Hanky Panky.”

One evening, he recalled in “Kiss Me Like a Stranger,” he and Ms. Radner innocently ended up at his hotel to review some script changes. The time came for her to go; instead she shoved him down on the bed, jumped on top of him and announced, “I have a plan for fun!” He sent her home anyway — she was married to another man — but before long they began a relationship.

By his account Ms. Radner was needy, obsessed with getting married and, once they married in 1984, obsessed with having a child, a project that ended in miscarriage just months before she learned she had ovarian cancer in 1986.

Of their first year of living together, he wrote: “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.” He left, only to find he needed to go back.

Ms. Radner died in 1989. “I had one great blessing: I was so dumb,” Mr. Wilder once said of her last years. “I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it.”

In memory of Ms. Radner, he helped to found an ovarian cancer detection center in her name, in Los Angeles, and Gilda’s Club, a network of support centers for women with cancer. He also contributed to a book, “Gilda’s Disease” (1998), with Dr. M. Steven Piver.

Mr. Wilder himself was stricken with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. With chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant, he was in remission by 2005.

In 1991 Mr. Wilder married Karen Boyer, a hearing specialist who had coached him in the filming of “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” in which his character was deaf and Mr. Pryor’s was blind. She survives him. His sister died last year. There was no immediate word on other survivors.

Even before he became ill, Mr. Wilder had begun slowing down. He made his first and last attempt at a television series, the short-lived and little-remembered comedy “Something Wilder,” in 1994. He returned to the theater in 1997 in a London production of Neil Simon’s “Laughter on the 23rd Floor.” In 1999 he co-wrote and starred in two TV movies, “Murder in a Small Town” and “The Lady in Question,” playing a theater director turned amateur sleuth. In 2001 he appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut in a program of one-act farces. Shortly after appearing in an episode of “Will & Grace” in 2003, for which he won an Emmy, he declared that he had retired from acting for good.

“I don’t like show business, I realized,” he said in 2008. “I like show, but I don’t like the business.”

He was by then enjoying a new career as a novelist. His “My French Whore,” published in 2007, was the story of a naïve young American who impersonates a German spy in World War I (“just fluff, but sweet fluff,” the novelist Carolyn See wrote in her review in The Washington Post). It was followed by two more novels, “The Woman Who Wouldn’t” and “Something to Remember You By,” and a story collection, “What Is This Thing Called Love?”

But it was of course as an actor that Mr. Wilder left his most lasting mark. In his memoir, he posed a question about his life’s work, then answered it:

“What do actors really want? To be great actors? Yes, but you can’t buy talent, so it’s best to leave the word ‘great’ out of it. I think to be believed, onstage or on screen, is the one hope that all actors share.”

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