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Comedy legend Wilder leaves a legacy of laughter

12:00am | & News

A legacy of laughter is the timeless gift from American comedy actor Gene Wilder, who has died at the age of 83.

Perhaps best known for his portrayal of Willie Wonka in the 1971 film version of Roald Dahl's classic children's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", Wilder also enjoyed productive long-term collaborations with producer Mel Brooks and fellow actor Richard Pryor.

A master of comic timing, Wilder could veer from understated wide-eyed pathos to manic comedy hysteria, pulling off either with mesmeric aplomb, but he was also a fine character actor who first made his name on the Broadway stage.

Born in Milwaukee the son of a Russian Jewish immigrant, he became interested in acting as a child, enrolling for lessons at 13 and performing his first role for a paying audience two years later. He adopted Gene Wilder as his professional name at the age of 26, after graduating in Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa and furthering his studies at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, in England. 

Wilder quickly made a name for himself on the stage, winning critical acclaim for a number of straight roles, including Shakespeare. It was Mel Brooks who spotted Wilder's potential for comedy, giving him his first leading film role in the 1968 classic "The Producers". It was the start of a long and productive partnership with Brooks, spawning such favourites as "Blazing Saddles" and "Young Frankenstein", which Wilder co-wrote.

Many of Wilder's films, including "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory", were not a commercial success on their release but have gone on to gain a cult following and be seen as classics. Others were sometimes panned by critics but loved by audiences , including his collaborations with comedian and actor Richard Pryor, such as "Silver Streak", "Stir Crazy" and "See No Evil, Hear No Evil".

Their 1991 film "Another You" was less successful and would be the last feature film appearance for both Pryor (whose health was visibly deteriorating) and Wilder, who was moving more into writing, directing and TV roles.

Wilder was also increasingly active in a new role, promoting cancer awareness and treatment following the death of his third wife, fellow actor Gilda Radner, from the disease in 1989. He helped to found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center in Los Angeles and co-founded Gilda's Club, a support group which began in New York and later had branches throughout the USA.

In late 1991 he married for a fourth and final time to Karen Webb, who had coached him in lip reading for an acting role. The couple lived in semi-retirement in Connecticut, enjoying painting watercolours, charity work and writing, with Wilder publishing three novels. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2013, but kept the condition private.

His family announced news of his death on August 29th, sparking a flood of tributes from around the globe, many acknowledging him as a comedy genius.

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