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Gene Wilder, the comedic genius who brought us such eccentric silver screen characters as Dr. Frankenstein, Skip Donahue from Stir Crazy and, of course, Willy Wonka, has died of complications from Alzheimer's disease. Wilder was 83 years old.
Wilder was a two-time Oscar nominee, one for writing (shared with frequent collaborator Mel Brooks) and one for acting, playing one half of the zany duo in Brooks' The Producers. He was best known for his work in numerous classic comedies -- usually with Brooks behind the camera on pictures like Blazing Saddles or Young Frankenstein. But Wilder also carved out a niche starring opposite fellow comedic genius Richard Pryor, and then for playing the offbeat candy factory owner in the strange and wonderful Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Variety reported on his death.
Considering the sheer number of memorable roles Gene Wilder had on his professional acting resume, it's shocking that the one that stands out has to be Willy Wonka. The deceptive, manipulative, semi-cruel but ultimately rewarding caricature defined authority for a generation of moviegoers, while also delivering some of the brattiest portrayals of spoiled adolescence... allowing Wilder the opportunity to dispense of some awful kids in ways the audience only dreamed of being able to do. Not a week goes by that I don't quote Wilder as Wonka, though it's usually to shout at my own kids, "You lose! You get nothing! Good day, sir!"
But you could also dedicate a whole section of Gene Wilder's comedic career to the characters he created with the brilliant Mel Brooks in such biting satires as Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Young Frankenstein. Saddles, in particular, wrestled with racism at a time where the industry was figuring out how best to comment on some hot-button social issues. And while The Producers found new life as a Broadway musical with Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, it was the groundwork laid by Wilder and his co-star Zero Mostel, that allowed such a renaissance to even happen.
Gene Wilder has been off the screen for years now. He was devastated by the death of his wife Gilda Radner, whom he once directed in the sublime comedy The Woman in Red. The gentle and supportive Wilder chose retirement as he reached his eighties. His last credited work was a voice credit on the children's TV show Yo Gabba Gabba, though he also appeared as Mr. Stein on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace in 2002 and '03. There were rumors that Steven Spielberg was going to try and get Wilder to come out of retirement to play James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, in his adaptation of the novel Ready Player One. Sadly, this isn't meant to be.
It's with a deep and profound sadness that we bid farewell to Gene Wilder, a titan of comedy who created larger-than-life but always human characters that challenged the way we saw the world. He will be missed more than we could possible express.