With his wild hair and big, melancholic eyes, Gene Wilder had a unique nuttiness about him. From Dr. Ross to mad chocolatier Willy Wonka, the beloved actor perfected his roles and opened his viewers to a world of pure imagination. But beneath his kooky personas was a man far more interesting than any of his characters.
Wilder was a true entertainer who dedicated his life to the art of making people smile. He went through innocence-shattering moments as a kid but picked himself up and made a promise to bring nothing but laughter into the world. Luckily for us, he succeeded.
In honor of this comic enigma, here are some fascinating bits about his life.
Wilder felt that his birth name, Jerome Silberman, lacked the right ring to it. Even a play on his name, “Jerry,” didn’t make the cut. Instead, he adopted a stage name, a name we all grew to know and love – Gene Wilder. He chose to call himself Gene after Eugene, the lead character of Thomas Wolfe’s first novel, Look Homeward, Angel.
Gene rounded up his name with Wilder after Thornton Wilder, a writer he greatly admired and the author of one of his favorite plays, Our Town. He officially became Gene Wilder in 1961, after he was accepted into Lee Strasberg’s esteemed Actor’s Studio in Manhattan.
Wilder was born in 1933 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to a Jewish family. Despite his upbringing, Wilder never felt connected to a Jewish god. Or any other monotheistic god, for that matter. He wrote in his 2005 memoir: “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.”
Occasionally, the actor joked around and referred to himself as a “Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist.” But in truth, Wilder didn’t commit himself to any philosophy. The only thing he believed in was the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When Wilder was eight years old, his mom suffered a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. Shocked and confused, the young boy was left wondering how to make her feel better. The doctor gave him some valuable advice: make her laugh.
For years, Wilder carried those words with him. He genuinely believed that laughter was a healing mechanism that had the power to prolong one’s life. Which, in a way, it really is. When eight-year-old Wilder saw his mom light up with laughter, he knew he wanted to make this his life’s work.
Wilder’s mom, Jeanne Baer, knew that her son’s potential would go to waste in Wisconsin, so she talked her husband into sending him to Hollywood’s Black-Foxe Military Institute. Wilder was the only Jew in his new school, and sadly, this led to some ugly fights between him and his bullying peers.
Wilder disclosed the beatings to his father, sending him heartbreaking letters about the daily bullying. But his dad kept it a secret from his mom, feeling it was better not to worry her weak heart. When he came home for the holidays, Wilder hid the bruises with long-sleeved shirts and bulky scarves. Eventually, his mom caught a glimpse of one of the purple marks and immediately pulled him out of the school.
After his short and painful stay at the Military Institute, Wilder returned home and found comfort in his town’s theater community. At only 15, he stepped on stage for the first time as Balthasar, Romeo’s servant in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
Gene’s stage debut brought a whole new meaning to his life. His involvement in the local theater scene lasted all through high school and colored his adolescence with vibrant creativity and passion. He later applied to the University of Iowa, where he studied Communication and Theatre Arts.
Straight out of Iowa, Wilder flew to England, where he spent a year at the Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol. Apart from acting, Wilder picked up a new hobby – fencing. After six short months of swift lunges, he became the school’s first freshman to be crowned champion.
Through the years, Wilder put his skillful fencing to good use, serving as a fencing choreographer in several films and working as a teacher to help him stay afloat in his early days when he first tried to break into the industry.
Wilder’s first taste of military life in Black-Foxe was pretty traumatic (anti-Semitic bullying and all). But his second experience was, luckily, very different. He was drafted into the US Army in 1956, where he successfully completed his training and joined the medical corps.
The new soldier was allowed to choose whichever post he preferred out of the available ones. Wilder chose Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where he served as a paramedic in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurology at Valley Forge Army Hospital.
Wilder took on some eccentric roles in his lively career. From sheep-loving Dr. Ross to Jim, a.k.a Waco Kid, his roles required a high degree of madness. Wilder admitted that the time he spent in the military treating psychiatric patients helped him tremendously to get into character.
His years at the psychiatry center exposed him to the broad spectrum of mental disorders and the spontaneous, confusing, and mysterious behavior of many of his patients. Incredibly, Wilder used art and acting to raise awareness on mental illness, a topic many of us prefer to shy away from.
In 1971, Wilder auditioned for the part of Willy Wonka in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. When director Mel Stuart heard Wilder recite his lines, he knew he had his guy. As Wilder walked out of the room, Mel chased him down and offered him the role on the spot.
Wilder said he would agree to do it under one condition. He wanted to make Willy Wonka’s first entrance in the movie memorable by fooling the crowd. He wanted to step outside with a cane and convince everyone he had a disability by limping towards them, only to end his walk with an incredible forward somersault and a fascinated round of applause.
Gene Wilder perfected his role as coocoo chocolatier Willy Wonka. He skipped, sang, got into a trance, and introduced us all to a delicious wonderland. It was practically impossible not to fall in love with him and even harder to try and describe him. But Wilder managed to do so perfectly.
“[Willy Wonka is] an eccentric – where there’s no telling what he’ll do,” he stated in a letter he wrote in 1970. Wilder described the crazy character as “part of this world, part of another … Something mysterious, yet undefined.” A perfect description!
Gene Wilder wasn’t too excited about the 2005 remake of the film. He told IGN, “The thing that put me off … I like Johnny Depp, I like him, as an actor I like him very much … but when I saw little pieces in the promotion of what he was doing, I said I don’t want to see the film, because I don’t want to be disappointed in him.”
In 2013, Wilder called the remake “an insult.” He criticized Burton’s directing and accused the filmmakers of shooting the remake just to make money. Johnny Depp was greatly disappointed by Wilder’s comment and said that it wasn’t necessarily a remake but a new adaptation.
Gene Wilder had a great capacity to love and be loved, and the women around him always felt that. His first wife was Mary Mercier, an actress and playwright he met in New York and married in 1960. After five years, the pair divorced.
He said “I do” to his second wife, Mary Joan Schultz, in 1967, and for seven years, they lived together as a family along with Mary’s daughter from her previous marriage. Wilder wrote about their divorce in his book, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, and told The New York Daily that he hoped the book would “explain some things.”
It didn’t take long for Mary Joan Schultz’s daughter, Katherine, to refer to Wilder as her dad. She looked up to her new father figure and found peace in his arms. But as her parent’s marriage began to crumble, so did her trust and tranquility.
She suspected that Wilder was cheating on her mom with Madeline Khan, his co-star in the film Young Frankenstein. Eventually, Katherine cut off all contact with him. Wilder admitted he never got over their terrible farewell.
Wilder met his third wife, Gilda Radner, in 1982 on the set of Hanky Panky. Two years later, they tied the knot. “I had been a fan of Gene Wilder’s for many years, but the first time I saw him, my heart fluttered – I was hooked. It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor,” Radner wrote in her memoir.
Wilder was equally invested in the relationship and often described his time with her as the best years of his life. Five years into their marriage, Gilda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and on May 20th, 1989, she passed away.
Wilder struggled to make sense of his wife’s death. How could such a vibrant, funny human being disappear just like that? He told People Magazine, “For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’”
Wilder believed that Gilda didn’t have to die so young (only 42). He blamed his ignorance, the doctor’s, and even Gilda’s ignorance for how things ended. “She could be alive today if I knew then what I know now,” he sadly mentioned.
Wilder saw two women he loved lose their lives to this specific type of cancer: his mom in 1957, and Gilda, in 1989. Heartbroken and fed up with the world’s lack of awareness on the subject, he founded the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles.
Wilder sparked a much-needed discussion on the topic and even wrote a book with oncologist Steven Piver called Gilda’s Disease (1998). The book is described as a “compassionate and comprehensive look” at this unfortunate illness.
Wilder’s nephew told People Magazine that his uncle wasn’t sure he would ever fall in love again after Gilda’s death. He was scared to go out on dates and doubted anyone would excite him like Gilda did. But all that changed in 1989 when he met his fourth love, Karen Boyer.
Boyer, a speech consultant, walked into Wilder’s life while researching his 1989 film, See No Evil, Hear No Evil. “Once he [Wilder] realized he could date, he didn’t want to date anyone but Karen,” his nephew revealed.
Wilder and Boyer married in 1991 and remained together for 25 years until he passed away in 2016. His marriage to Boyer gave him an immense amount of tranquility, a genuine sense of peace he had not experienced before.
The powerful bond they formed was extremely moving. Boyer told ABC that the first twenty years of their marriage were the happiest ones of her life. They traveled the world together, painted side by side in the garden, and danced under the moonlit sky.
Wilder’s first signs of trouble were small yet concerning. Boyer mentioned how Wilder’s spatial perception grew shaky, causing him to miscalculate the distance from the objects around him. His personality began to change, and he lashed out at people for no particular reason.
When Wilder received the news of his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease, he was overwhelmed, but according to Boyer, he took it with “astonishing grace.” He accepted his new reality and did his best to remain calm and joyful despite his gradually worsening condition.
Alzheimer’s disease gradually took over Wilder’s life and robbed him of his ability to perform basic tasks, like how to tie his shoelaces or remove his wristwatch. But incredibly, there were certain things he never forgot. Flickers of his old movies still remained.
Despite not remembering the names of the movies he starred in, he remembered his lines. When he was sitting with friends one evening, Young Frankenstein’s topic came up, and he couldn’t wrap his head around the movie, so he acted it out instead.
Gene Wilder died at the age of 83, on the 29th of August 2016, from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. He lay in his bed in Stanford, Connecticut, surrounded by his family, with one of his favorite songs playing in the background – Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Wilder struggled with Alzheimer’s for three years before his passing. But he never made it public because he didn’t want kids to mix Willy Wonka with confusion, worry, and a loss of identity. He wanted people to remember him as a person who brought joy and wonder to the world.
Wilder had not spoken for several days before his death. But when he lay in bed during those last moments, he looked into his wife’s eyes and managed to mutter, “I trust you.” Boyer took those words to heart, and after his passing, she dedicated herself to projects centering around the disease.
She participated in the Pure Imagination Project, a video that launched during National Alzheimer’s Disease Awareness Month. “When I saw this campaign, I knew that it brilliantly and beautifully captured all that Alzheimer’s can take away, and my hope is that it will motivate people to learn more and to seek to change the course of this disease for future generations,” she said.
Katherine was Wilder’s daughter for several years until he divorced her mom (and all contact was lost). Afterward, Wilder tried to have children with Gilda, but sadly, she suffered two miscarriages before being diagnosed with cancer.
As life would have it, Wilder never managed to have any kids of his own. But he was the onscreen dad of many children who looked up to him and his honest, playful personality. Regardless, we have no doubt in our minds that he would have been an incredible dad.
Gene Wilder went into acting to spread love, laughter, and a warm sense of togetherness. But as the years went by, he began to feel like he didn’t belong in the film industry anymore. Their aggressive, loud, and forceful content was too much for him.
In 2013, Time Out Magazine inquired about the actor’s disappearance from the screens. He responded, “I’m tired of watching the bombing, shooting, killing, swearing, and 3-D. I get 52 movies a year sent to me, and maybe there are three good [ones]. That’s why I went into writing.”
Wilder’s sweet and somewhat sad blue eyes charmed Brooks the second they met. He told the actor that he saw him as “a sheep surrounded by wolves.” Wilder went on to star in three of Brook’s films: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein.
After Wilder’s passing, Brooks tweeted in tribute to his beloved collaborator: “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 cast of Willy Wonka had a blast working with Wilder. After his passing, Oompa Loompa star, Rusty Goffe, paid his respects by saying: “Gene Wilder was one of the nicest, if not the nicest, actor I have ever worked with. A true star. Thank you, Mr. Wonka.”
Denise Nickerson, who played bubble gum fanatic Violet Beauregarde, tweeted: “You were so talented and kind-hearted.” And Julie Dawn Cole, who played Veruca Salt, told the BBC: “[Wilder] was a very kind, endearing, and patient man.”
Wilder felt that people’s biggest misconception about him was thinking of him as this cheerful and funny guy. “What a comic, what a funny guy, all that stuff! And I’m not. I’m really not. Except in a comedy in films,” he told Robert Osborne in 2013.
Wilder was humble and surprisingly very private. When people would come up to Wilder and gush over how he made them laugh, calling him “the funniest guy ever,” he would usually respond with, “I’m not, really. I’m quite private, but I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the movies.”
Actress Kelly LeBrock was Gene’s love interest in the 1984 film, The Woman in Red. The young beauty was a wonder to look at, but Kelly revealed that the duo’s relationship was far from sexual. “He was like a father to me. He encouraged me when I was nervous on stage and supported me off it,” she told The Guardian.
The last time Kelly saw Wilder was four years before his death, on a flight to Bermuda. Funny enough, she was wearing red (a color she barely wears). Seeing him frail and thin came as a shock, but as she held his hand, she immediately sensed that same warmth she felt with him all those years ago.
Gilda Radner gifted Wilder a precious little present on his birthday – a case with two brushes, watercolor paper, and eight colors. Wilder cherished his humble gift and developed his skills by taking lessons and progressing to portraits.
In a conversation about art and creativity, Wilder told the Hartford Courant, “Artistic energy is like a sexual drive to me. It’s always there.” He described his paintings as “romantic realism” and said that seeing watercolors spread onto a paper is like watching magic unfold.
Wilder wrote several books in his career. Some were nonfiction, while others were witty and funny made-up stories. He published his first novel in 2007 called My French Whore, which critics described as a “sweet, well-written book with perfect dialogues.”
In Gene’s words: “My French Whore is my memo to the masses who cried out Give us more of the same! Very well, liebchens. Would you like to re-live the black comedy of The Producers? I give you the madcap tale of an American soldier who impersonates a German spy with hilarious but somber results.”
Turning down roles in the industry is tricky. And more often than not, actors find themselves looking back in despair at the Oscar-nominated roles that were almost theirs. But Gene Wilder wasn’t one of them. In an interview with Larry King, he shared his thoughts on the parts he never got to play.
“I’ve turned down lots of movies, but none that I felt sorry about,” he told King. However, Gene revealed there were movies he wanted to do but wasn’t offered the part. Like Joe Levine’s 1978 film, Magic. Wilder also admitted he would have loved to do a comedy with Emma Thompson.
When you think of Gene Wilder, you instantly smile. It’s hard not to, thanks to the numerous comedies and hilarious roles he’s done. But being known as “the funny guy” is a dangerous box to find yourself in. Luckily, Wilder never really struggled with it. Except for one time.
He wanted to act in the horror film Magic (1978) but was turned down by the film’s producer Joe Levine who told him, “You’re a great actor Gene Wilder. [But] no, I don’t want any comedians!” Other than that, Wilder never really felt like he was discriminated for being funny.
When Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor first met on Silver Streak’s set in 1976, their instant click was startling. They brought the best out of each other, improvising many of the lines in perfect spontaneity. Wilder felt that they had the same type of silliness.
“We never talked about anything to do with improvising. It just happened. I didn’t do that with other people. In a sense, it was like a sexual attraction. That is, the chemistry,” he told journalist Gregg LaGambina. In total, the unconventional duo starred in four movies together.
In an interview with Little White Lies, Wilder was asked whether he preferred New York’s stages over Los Angeles’ movies. For the eccentric actor, the answer was a no-brainer: “Only New York.” His feelings towards LA were a bit…meh.
Wilder knew that meeting filmmakers in LA meant dealing with silly remarks he didn’t have the patience for, like, “I hear you’re a funny guy.” The actor felt that seeing him in a play was the only way for people to really get to know him as a performer.
In the early ‘70s, Wilder came up with a kooky idea of having Victor Frankenstein’s grandson inherit the mansion and continue his research. He wrote his story and pitched it to Mel Brooks. Brooks, however, wasn’t too thrilled about it… at first.
The Frankenstein craze was everywhere, so creating another film related to the used-up story could end up being a serious flop. But Wilder insisted that his story was something else. He told Brooks that Frankenstein’s grandson didn’t want anything to do with his wacko family! The idea made Brooks laugh, so he agreed to do it.
In 1972, Wilder starred in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask), where he played the role of Dr. Ross. There was honestly no other person who could have nailed the part like Wilder.
His bizarre character is a doctor who’s a little too fond of his pet sheep. “That’s not an easy task, being in bed with a sheep, especially if you make the sheep nervous. I’m not going to go on if you know what I’m talking about,” Wilder told CNN in 2002.
Wilder was determined to play in Brook’s Blazing Saddles, and he had just one role in mind: Waco kid. But Brooks wanted an older guy, “someone who could look like an over-the-hill alcoholic,” he told Wilder. Brooks thought of Dan Dailey, John Wayne, or Johnny Carson.
After all of them declined, Brooks turned to Gig Young, an Oscar-winner with a serious drinking problem. Young agreed, but his first day on set made Brooks regret he ever offered him the part. He came in ill with withdrawal symptoms. Exhausted and disappointed, Brooks called his good friend, Wilder, who gladly responded with, “I know, Mel, I’m the Waco Kid. You need me, I’II be there.”
Trading Places is one of the greatest comedies to come out of the ‘80s. The movie centers around two brothers, who were originally supposed to be played by Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. So, how did it end up being Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd?
Sadly, Pryor’s drug abuse got the best of him, and by the time the movie’s shooting began, he was too zoned out to do it. The movie ended up being an incredible financial success, but there’s no doubt that Wilder and Pryor could have done an equally good (dare I say…better?) job.
Wilder introduced us to the inner workings of his mind in 2005, when he published his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art. The actor wrote about his personal experiences, from his many romantic loves to funny stories about the people he’s worked with.
The witty memoir is packed with insightful little gems, all written with tremendous humility. It’s a reflective piece written by an incredible actor, a gentle human being, and a wonderful teacher. A perfect read for whoever wants to know a little bit more about this true star.