Over the weekend, it was announced that Gene Wilder – the twinkle-eyed, softly-spoken star of films including Willy Wonka, Blazing Saddles and The Producers – had passed away aged 83.
In a statement written on behalf of Wilder’s family, the actor’s “nephew/child” Jordan Walker-Pearlman delivered the news of his death “with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived”, adding: “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”
Wilder died at home in Stamford, Connecticut, holding his family’s hands “with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember,” said Walker-Pearlman. He said that one of Wilder’s favourite songs – Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Ella Fitzgerald – played in the background as he died.
The legendary actor had been experiencing complications from Alzheimer’s, according to his family. The news that Wilder had been suffering from the disease for the last three years came as a surprise to many: the actor, who retreated from the public eye in his later years, had largely kept his illness a secret.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness of trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion,” said Walker-Pearlman.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
But even when Wilder’s Alzheimer’s was at its worst, Walker-Pearlman said, he didn’t lose his sense of self – nor his ability to remember his loved ones.
“We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones,” he said. “This illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognise those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality.”
The twice Oscar-nominated Wilder was known predominantly for his comedic roles, usually playing gentle, wide-eyed neurotics. Upon learning of his death, comedians and actors including Mel Brooks – who directed Wilder in films including The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and Jim Carrey payed tribute on Twitter to a comedic hero.