Gene Wilder has died. He was 83 years old.
For many of us, Wilder exists in a space only a precious few ever could. It’s a space occupied by artists that effected us at a young age and inspired us to look at the world differently. In a statement from his nephew, it has been revealed that Wilder was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. When asked why Wilder didn’t go public with the diagnosis, his nephew stated that “the decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him “there’s Willy Wonka,” would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion.”
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Gene Wilder made the world a happier place. In interviews, he has said that the first moment he ever consciously tried to make anyone laugh was shortly after his mother had her first heart attack. He was eight years old at the time. A doctor came to the house and told him, “Don’t ever argue with your mother. You might kill her. Try to make her laugh.” So, he did. The healing power of Wilder’s comedy is consistently present in his body of work. Wilder always played the sad clown to the hilt, managing to perfectly intertwine comedy and tragedy. You can see it in Willy Wonka’s eyes as he walks around his immaculate factory. It’s a perfect world of “pure imagination,” but he has no one to share it with.
Wilder also had a knack for choosing projects that had meaningful comedy in them. Blazing Saddles is a film that would never be made today with quite the same irreverence of the time. In particular, the way the film pokes fun at race relations in America is something that would probably turn off many moviegoers for holding up a mirror to society.
There are many great performances in his catalogue, but the one that always stuck in the public consciousness was his iconic portrayal of Willy Wonka. His Wonka was the kind of character you simply couldn’t take your eyes off of. There’s a Chaplin-esque physicality to him in that role. It appears in moments such as his descent down the steps into the Chocolate Room or the famous somersault after limping out of his factory. However, my favorite moments of Wilder’s were always when get let himself get quiet, smaller, more intimate. He had an enormous gift for saying so much without saying a thing at all.
Wilder will be missed greatly. Whether it was his madcap performance as Frederick Frankenstein or his live-wire energy as Leo Bloom in The Producers, he has left a body of work to be cherished by generations to come.