When one thinks of Gene Wilder, it’s impossible not to consider his major 1971 success as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Yet despite his work as an actor, Wilder also became a great novelist and writer. He was also married four times, but sadly, his third ended in a major tragedy.
Gene Wilder – early life
As Gene grew up, his mother was often ill. More specifically, she had complications from rheumatic heart disease.
Naturally, children and their parents will argue from time to time about different things. When Gene turned eight, though, a doctor told him not to.
“Don’t ever argue with your mother, you might kill her. Try to make her laugh,” the doctor famously said.
Perhaps this was also what sparked what would become a very successful career. Wilder decided to try and make his mother laugh as much as he could, putting on different accents and characters.
His mother laughed often at her son’s performances – and in a 2015 NPR interview, Gene credited Jeanne with helping him start his career.
“When your mother gives you confidence about anything that you do, you carry that confidence with you,” Wilder said. “She made me believe that I could make someone laugh.”
Gene went on to join the California military. However, it was never his calling. Instead, the aspiring actor with big dreams returned to Milwaukee and started performing in the local theaters. He debuted in Romeo and Juliet as Balthasar, before graduating from high school and studying at the University of Iowa.
Why Gene Wilder changed his name
After two years of military service – Gene had been drafted into the US Army – he moved to New York City. The big dream was still to work as an actor, but achieving that in New York requires plenty of patience. Gene took on several jobs to support himself, including being a fencing teacher (he had studied fencing in Bristol) and driving a limousine.
At age 26, he was accepted into the Actor’s Studio. That was when he felt he needed a better name, as the aspiring actor wanted to appear both intellectual and well-read. In college, he read Look Homeward, Angel, and took Gene after the character Eugene Grant. His new surname, Wilder, Gene, took from Thornton Wilder, author of Our Town.
Obviously, it was a great name, and the move paid off. In 1967, at age 33 and after several years working in off-Broadway plays, Wilder made his film debut in Bonnie and Clyde.
After his debut, Wilder’s career rocketed upwards. First, in 1968, he landed a part in Mel Brooks’ classic comedy The Producers. Despite the film being quite the flop at the box office, he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Then, three years later, he got the now-legendary role of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’
When Wilder first got the script for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he quickly realized he liked it. However, there were some details that he insisted on being changed if he was to take the role of Willy Wonka.
According to Wilder, Wonka didn’t get the introduction that he deserved in the film.
As revealed in letters between Wilder and the film’s director Mel Stuart, Wilder felt his character needed a better, less generic introduction.
“When I make my first entrance, I’d like to come out of the door carrying a cane and then walk toward the crowd with a limp. After the crowd sees Willy Wonka is a cripple, they all whisper to themselves and become deathly quiet,” Gene wrote in the letter to Mel Stuart.
“As I walk toward them, my cane sinks into one of the cobblestones I’m walking on and stands straight up, by itself; but I keep on walking, until I realize that I no longer have my cane. I start to fall forward, and just before I hit the ground, I do a beautiful forward somersault and bounce back up, to great applause.”
In the end, Stuart obliged Wilder’s request, which led to an iconic scene, a classic performance, a cult movie. It was a grand entrance, and most importantly, it gave the character of Willy Wonka another dimension. Later, Wilder revealed that the way that Wonka entered the film was crucial because “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
Requested changed in his costume to play the role of Willy Wonka
Before filming had started, while still in pre-production, Wilder gave costume designers and, of course, director Mel Stuart the changes he wanted made to his Willy Wonka costume. As reported by Yahoo, that included everything from the type of pants he was wearing, the cut and color of the jacket, and even the placement of pockets.
“The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special,” Wilder was said to have said.
Many of the changes Gene requested for Willy Wonka’s appearance became a reality. The character’s funny personality was implemented into his clothes – and it became a smash hit.
Willy Wonka was goofy, and it gave Wilder something of a reputation for being a funny person. Later on the actor claimed that it was a common misconception many of his fans had.
He was once asked who his favorite comedic actor or filmmaker was. He named Woody Allen.
“I don’t love Woody Allen’s [films] all the time, but when they’re good, they’re just sensational, I love them,” Wilder said. “I mean, just seeing ‘Midnight in Paris,’ how could you do better than that?”
“I think it’s an insult”
Some were impressed by the Tim Burton remake, while others had different opinions. One who did not like how Burton’s version turned out was Gene Wilder.
“I think it’s an insult,” Wilder explained. “Johnny Depp, I think, is a good actor, but I don’t care for that director. He’s a talented man, but I don’t care for him doing stuff like he did.”
Wilder went on to star in the cult classic Blazing Saddles in 1974, and the year after, he got his second Academy Award nomination. He wrote Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks, and Wilder starred in the film himself as Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson. The two were nominated for an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material.
Two years later, he starred, wrote, and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. Unfortunately, though he had become a well-liked actor, many of his projects failed to get positive reviews from critics and viewers.
Wilder continued working as an actor through the 1980s and ’90s. Sadly, most of his projects were flops, and the television series he appeared in got canceled.
In the end, he decided to quit acting for good. Instead, Wilder became a writer, publishing two novels and several short stories. In 2005, he released a memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art.
Gene Wilder – personal life, marriage, wives, divorce, children
“I mean, they came along for the first, I don’t know, 15, 18 films, but I didn’t do that many. But then I didn’t want to do the kind of junk I was seeing. I didn’t want to do 3D, for instance. I didn’t want to do ones where it’s just bombing and loud and swearing. So much swearing going on. If someone says ‘Ah, go f— yourself,’ well, if it came from a meaningful place, I’d understand it. But if you go to some movies, can’t they just stop and talk, just talk, instead of swearing? That put me off a lot.”
Wilder had a bumpy personal life. He was married four times, with one of the unions ending in absolute tragedy.
From 1960 to 1965, Wilder was married to Mary Mercier. Two years after their divorce, he married Mary Joan Schutz. The actor went on to adopt her daughter Katherine. However, the marriage didn’t last, and after they divorced, Wilder became estranged from Katherine.
“I had a daughter and lost her a long while ago. That’s too sad a story to go into,” he told Larry King in 2002.
In 1984, Wilder tied the knot for the third time. He and Saturday Night Live alum Gilda Radner married – the two began seeing each other while they both were married and ended up getting divorced to be able to marry each other.
Gene and Gilda stayed happily married for years thereafter, but in 1989, tragedy struck when Radner passed away from cancer.
Tragic passing of third wife Gilda Radner
“I had one brave contribution to make to Gilda. I was so incredibly dumb, it was hard to believe, because I thought she was going to pull through until three weeks before she died,” Wilder told Larry King.
“Two-and- three-quarters years, I thought that she would make it. And I would say that to her, and she said, really? And I said I’ll find — right now, I’ll exchange life spans with you. The irony is that I meant it. I thought that she’d pull through and that she would live longer than I would.”
He continued: “I could see that she wasn’t going to make it. And she knew it too. And she recorded her book, It’s Always Something, three weeks before she died because she wanted it to be on record. She’d pull herself out of bed, put a little make-up on, put a skirt and blouse on, be driven to the studio, record her book, come home and get back into bed.”
In 1991, Wilder married Karen Webb. The two became life partners and spent many happy years together.
On August 28, 2016, the Wilder family shared the sad news that Gene had passed away in Stamford, Connecticut, aged 83.
At the time, no one knew what had happened. But after his death, the Wilder family revealed that he had battled Alzheimer’s for several years.
Gene Wilder kept his Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret until his death
Wilder wished that his diagnosis would not be disclosed to the public. According to a statement made by his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, the actor wanted to shield children who recognized him as Willy Wonka from learning about the disease and its impact.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
When Wilder passed away, Ella Fitzgerald’s version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow was reportedly playing, while the actor was surrounded by his family.
Wilder was buried at the Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Connecticut. About one and a half years later, widow Kareen Webb opened up about Gene’s struggles during his last years alive. Moreover, she also recalled his last words.
“My husband took the news with grief, of course, but also astonishing grace. I watched his disintegration each moment of each day for six years. One day, I saw him struggle with the ties on his drawstring pants. That night, I took the drawstrings out. Then his wrist was bleeding from the failed effort of trying to take off his watch. I put his watch away,” Webb wrote.
“Gene died fifteen months ago. I was in the bed next to him when he took his last breaths. By that point, it had been days since he’d spoken. But on that last night, he looked me straight in the eye and said, three times over, ‘I trust you.’”