Gene Wilder, one of the greatest comedic legends of our time, died on Sunday in Stamford, Conn., from complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Wilder was 83.
Born Jerome Silberman on June 11, 1933, in Milwaukee, the future star became a comic actor almost from the start — and for a tragic reason: His mother suffered from heart disease, and since it was feared stress would kill her, laughter was demanded. Wilder, who went on to be one of the screen’s leading neurotics, would trace his own neuroses to the experience. He often spoke of how any excitement or happiness during his mother’s illness felt wrong to him, so he spent many years fighting impulses to be happy or enjoy any moment.
Wilder was previously married to Saturday Night Live star Gilda Radner, and in the wake of her death in 1989, he became a leading proponent of ovarian cancer screening and research. He’s survived by his fourth wife, Karen Webb.
Wilder would go on to testify before Congress about the importance of cancer screenings and knowledge of family health history and co-found Gilda’s Club, a cancer-support organization that started (and remains) in New York City and spawned numerous chapters.
Wilder, who was married and divorced twice before his union to Radner, wed Webb, a hearing specialist he’d worked with on Hear No Evil, See No Evil, in 1991.
Wilder would work in only a handful more TV and film projects, including one last comedy with Richard Pryor, 1991’s Another You.
In 1999, Wilder was diagnosed with lymphoma. However, by the time he went public with his health, in 2000, he was already said to be in remission
Wilder never viewed himself as a comedian, and adamantly denied that label. He saw himself as an actor first and only claimed to be a comedian if playing a comedy role. He even win two Oscar awards in his career, a feat rarely achieved by comedic actors.
Despite his belief otherwise, the comedy of Gene Wilder inspired generations of comedians, and his work in films such as Blazing Saddles and Monthy Python made him a staple of cinema for decades.
He will always be remembered fondly by his friends and family, as well his droves of fans.