Gene Wilder, the frizzy-haired actor who brought his deft comedic touch to such unforgettable roles as the neurotic accountant in “The Producers” and the mad scientist of “Young Frankenstein,” has died. He was 83.
Wilder’s nephew said Monday that the actor and writer died late Sunday at his home in Stamford, Conn., from complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement that Wilder was diagnosed with the disease three years ago but kept the condition private so as not to disappoint fans.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” Walker-Pearlman said.
Wilder started his acting career on the stage, but millions knew him from his work in the movies, especially his collaborations with Mel Brooks on “The Producers,” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” The last film – with Wilder playing a California-born descendant of the mad scientist, insisting that his name is pronounced “Frahn-ken-SHTEEN” – was co-written by Brooks and Wilder.
“Gene Wilder, one of the truly great talents of our time, is gone,” Brooks wrote in a statement Monday. “He blessed every film we did together with his special magic and he blessed my life with his friendship. He will be so missed.”
With his unkempt hair and big, buggy eyes, Wilder was a master at playing panicked characters caught up in schemes that only a madman such as Brooks could devise, whether reviving a monster in “Young Frankenstein” or bilking Broadway in “The Producers.” Brooks would call him “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us.”
But he also knew how to keep it cool as the boozing gunslinger in “Blazing Saddles” or the charming candy man in the children’s favorite “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” His craziest role: the therapist having an affair with a sheep in Woody Allen’s “Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex.”
“The greatest comedic mind of my childhood is now gone,” actor Josh Gad wrote on Twitter. “#RIP #GeneWilder & thank you 4 your pure imagination. This one hits hard.”
Tweeted Jim Carrey: “Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there’s a heaven he has a Golden Ticket.”
Wilder was close friends with Richard Pryor, and their contrasting personas – Wilder uptight, Pryor loose – were ideal for comedy. They co-starred in four films: “Silver Streak,” “Stir Crazy,” “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and “Another You.” And they created several memorable scenes, particularly when Pryor provided Wilder with directions on how to “act black” as they tried to avoid police in “Silver Streak.”
But Wilder would insist in a 2013 interview that he was no comedian. He told interviewer Robert Osborne it was the biggest misconception about him.
“What a comic, what a funny guy, all that stuff! And I’m not. I’m really not. Except in a comedy in films,” Wilder said. “But I make my wife laugh once or twice in the house, but nothing special. But when people see me in a movie and it’s funny, then they stop and say things to me about ‘how funny you were.’ But I don’t think I’m that funny. I think I can be in the movies.”
In 1968, Wilder received an Oscar nomination for his work in Brooks’ “The Producers.” He played the introverted Leo Bloom, an accountant who discovers the liberating joys of greed and corruption as he and Max Bialystock (Zero Mostel) conceive a Broadway flop titled “Springtime For Hitler” and plan to flee with the money raised for the show’s production. Matthew Broderick played Wilder’s role in the 2001 Broadway stage revival of the show.
Though they collaborated on film, Wilder and Brooks met through the theater. Wilder was in a play with Brooks’ then- future wife, Anne Bancroft, who introduced the pair backstage in 1963.