Wilder's nephew reported that the actor died Sunday at his home in Stamford, CT, aged 83. The explanation that Wilder died from complications of Alzheimer's was one more sting from that particularly cruel disease. He reportedly kept his diagnosis a secret wishing there to not be one less smile in the world. I can report that today, there is at least one less.
Gene Wilder's role as Willy Wonka will forever remain my favorite. While it is one of his more popular roles, I still find it to be underappreciated. Pulling off that combination of sagacious yet eccentric genius was not a role that could have been filled by a lesser actor. The way he flowed through the emotional scale, dragging us with him all the way, will never be forgotten by me. We watched the film in my third grade class after reading the Roald Dahl classic. That was a special treat as our teacher hated television and discouraged us from watching it at every opportunity. But her love of the book and Wilder's portrayal of it made this movie an exception.
Throw in his role alongside Cleavon Little in Blazing Saddles and you have another masterpiece. This film from the past could not be made in today's overbearing PC environment. It was a film that challenged our thinking and made us laugh, perhaps not in that order. The total lack of sensitivity in the plot and the dialog would shake a modern college safe space to it's very core.
Though he had so many roles, I'll never forget a commercial, for the foundation started in memory of his late wife, Gilda Radner. It was a role I'd never seen him play - a man with a completely broken heart. You could see the love that he had for her and the pain he felt from her passing. It was a moment of true humanity, a look at Gene Wilder himself, and not just a character from his repertoire. That's when you know you're looking at a real person. You connect with them, not just the character. I think that's how he made all those roles come alive for us, that connection with the audience.
Whether is was raucous and raunchy alongside Richard Pryor, a family friendly moral lesson in a chocolate factory, or the insistence that his name be pronounced "Frahnk-un-steen", he never ceased to draw us in, make us laugh, see a bit of ourselves, and perhaps even be a better person for it. And the world could certainly more of that. "So shines a good deed in a weary world."
Godspeed, Gene, and thanks for everything.