When people think of Gene Wilder, they can’t help but remember his big hit as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in 1971.
Even though Wilder was an actor, he also wrote great novels and short stories. Besides that, he was married four times, but the third one ended in tragedy.
In 2016, Wilder died. The public found out a secret he had kept for years not long after he died.
Even though everyone knows him as Gene Wilder, he wasn’t born with that name. He was born on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was given the name Jerome Silberman during his birth. William, his father, came to the United States from Russia. His mother, Jeanne, was from Poland.
Gene Wilder’s early life
As Gene got older, his mom got sick a lot. In more detail, she had problems because of rheumatic heart disease.
Kids and their parents will naturally fight about different things every once in a while. But when Gene was eight, 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.
This may have also been the start of a very successful career. Changing his voice and acting like different people to make his mom laugh as much as possible was what Wilder did.
His mother often laughed at his acts, and Gene told NPR in 2015 that Jeanne helped him get his start in show business.
“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 then joined the army in California. But it was never his calling. Instead, the ambitious actor with big dreams went back to Milwaukee and started acting in plays there. He played Balthasar in his first role in Romeo and Juliet before he graduated from high school and started going to the University of Iowa to study.
Gene finally decided that he wanted to learn more about theater. Because of this, he chose to move to the UK and study at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, just like many others before and after him.
The reason Gene Wilder changed his name
Gene was drafted into the US Army and served for two years. After that, he went to New York City. The big dream was still to be an actor, but in New York, you have to be very patient to make that happen. Gene worked several jobs to support himself. He taught fencing (he had learned the sport in Bristol) and drove a limousine.
He got into the Actor’s Studio when he was 26 years old. The ambitious actor thought he needed a better name at that point because he wanted to seem smart and well-read. He got the name Gene from the character Eugene Grant in the book Look Homeward, Angel, which he read in college. His new last name, Wilder, Gene, came from Thornton Wilder, who wrote Our Town.
It was clear that the name was great, and the move paid off. In 1967, Wilder made his movie debut in Bonnie and Clyde. He was 33 years old at the time and had been working in off-Broadway shows for a few years.
Wilder’s career took off after his first movie. First, he got a part in Mel Brooks’s famous comedy The Producers in 1968. Even though the movie didn’t do very well at the box office, he was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role. After three years, he got the famous part of Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Wilder’s first lead part was as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It became one of the most beloved and remembered movies of all time, and it would go on to define Wilder’s career as a filmmaker. Gene, on the other hand, had some requirements before he even thought about taking on the job.
‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ stars Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka.
As soon as Wilder read the story for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he knew he liked it. There were, however, some things he demanded should be changed before he could play Willy Wonka.
Wilder said that Wonka didn’t get the great start he earned in the movie.
From letters between Wilder and the movie’s director Mel Stuart, we can see that Wilder thought his character needed a better, less generic opening.
“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 did what Wilder asked, which resulted in a famous scene, a legendary performance, and a popular film. It was a grand entry, but more importantly, it added something new to Willy Wonka’s personality. Over time, Wilder said that the way Wonka came into the movie was very important because “from that time on, no one will know if I’m lying or telling the truth.”
But Wilder had other ideas about how Willy Wonka’s first scene should go as well. Additionally, the actor was asked about what his outfit and overall appearance would be.
Asked to have his outfit changed so he could play Willy Wonka
While the movie was still in pre-production, Wilder told the costume designers and director Mel Stuart what changes he wanted to be made to his Willy Wonka outfit. Yahoo said that included the type of pants he was wearing, the color and cut of the jacket, and even where the pockets were placed.
“The hat is terrific, but making it 2 inches shorter would make it more special,” Wilder was said to have said.
A lot of the changes Gene asked to be made to Willy Wonka’s look were made. The funny attitude of the character was put into his clothes, and they were a huge hit.
It became known that Wilder was funny because of how silly Willy Wonka was. Later, the star said that many of his fans thought that way, which was not true.
Someone once asked him which funny actor or director he liked the most. He called it 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?”
For younger people, however, Gene Wilder might not immediately come to mind when they think of Willy Wonka. Instead, Johnny Depp might. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory came out in 2005, and Depp played Willy Wonka in it.
“I think it’s an insult”
The Tim Burton version made some people happy, while it made others unhappy. Gene Wilder was one person who didn’t like how Burton’s version turned out.
“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.”
In 1974, Wilder was in the cult hit Blazing Saddles, and the next year, he was nominated for his second Academy Award. He wrote the script for Young Frankenstein with Mel Brooks, and Wilder played Dr. Frankenstein’s grandson in the movie. They were both up for an Oscar for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Other Works.
He acted in, wrote, and directed The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother two years after that. Even though he was a well-liked actor, many of his movies and TV shows didn’t get good reviews from viewers or reviewers.
During the 1980s and 1990s, Wilder kept working as an actress. Sadly, most of his projects didn’t work out, and the TV show he was in was dropped.
He finally chose to stop playing for good. Instead, Wilder turned to writing and put out two books and a number of short stories. It was called Kiss Me Like a Stranger: My Search for Love and Art and came out in 2005.
“Once in a while, there was a nice, good film, but not very many. If something comes along that’s really good and I think I would be good for it, I’d be happy to do it. But not too many came along,” Gene said about leaving the acting business.
Gene Wilder – marriage, women, kids, and divorce
“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.”
Life in general was rough for Wilder. He was married four times, and one of the marriages ended in terrible tragedy.
She was married to Wilder from 1960 to 1965. He got married to Mary Joan Schutz two years after they split up. He then took her daughter Katherine in as his own. The marriage didn’t last, though, and after they split up, Wilder stopped talking to 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.
Wilder got married for the third time in 1984. Gillian Radner, who used to be on Saturday Night Live, and he got married. They started dating while they were both married, but had to get split in order to marry.
After that, Gene and Gilda were happily married for many years. But in 1989, Radner died of cancer, which was a terrible loss.
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.”
Wilder got married to Karen Webb in 1991. They got married and were happy together for many years.
Gene Wilder had died in Stamford, Connecticut, on August 28, 2016, at the age of 83. His family told everyone about the sad news.
No one knew what was going on at the time. But after he died, his family said that he had been sick with Alzheimer’s for a long time.
Gene Wilder hid the fact that he had Alzheimer’s until he died.
Wilder hoped that no one would find out what was wrong with him. In a statement, his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said that the actor didn’t want kids who knew him as Willy Wonka to learn about the disease and how it affects people.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Ella Fitzgerald’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was said to be playing while Wilder died. He was with his family at the time.
The Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Connecticut is where Wilder is buried. After about one and a half years, Gene’s wife Kareen Webb talked about the hard times he was going through in his last years. She also remembered what he said before he died.
“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.
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“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.’”
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