Gene Wilder, 83Steve Schapiro/Corbis/Getty Images
“I’m an actor, not a clown,” Gene Wilder was known to say. Wilder, who died in August due to complications from Alzheimer’s disease, was best known for his whimsical performances, but it was his deep understanding of emotion that made his acting ring true. Born Jerry Silberman in Milwaukee, he became Gene Wilder (“Gene” for the protagonist in “Look Homeward, Angel”; “Wilder” for the playwright Thornton Wilder) as his career took off.
Bullied for his Jewish roots and raised by an emotionally unstable mother with rheumatic heart disease, he saw comedy as a way to please others -- and explore his demons. Human frailty became an essential element of his humor, produced alongside empathetic friends and collaborators like Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor and Gilda Radner, who would become his third wife.
"He blessed every film we did with his magic and he blessed me with his friendship."- Mel Brooks
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One of Wilder’s most memorable roles was in “Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory.” Of his famous opening gag in the 1971 film, when he hobbles on a cane, only to pitch forward into a tumbling roll and land on his feet, Wilder said, “I knew that from then on, the audience wouldn't know if I was lying or telling the truth.”
Wilder channels his inner Douglas Fairbanks in this portrait from the late 1970s. Wilder had a fencing background, becoming the first American to win the English Schools Fencing Championship while he was studying acting in England.
"On stage or in the movies I could do whatever I wanted to. I was free."- Gene Wilder
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His marriage to Gilda Radner, cut short by her death from ovarian cancer, pushed him to become an advocate for early medical screenings and help to found Gilda’s Club, a network of cancer patient support centers.
In his later years, Wilder became a prolific writer, publishing three novels, a collection of short stories and a poignant memoir that offered profound insight into his craft. Behind his hysterical performances, he revealed, was a man whose gift for lightness had been sharpened by his foibles.