Gene Wilder, who delighted audiences with his comic turns in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and Mel Brooks classics including “Blazing Saddles” and “The Producers,” died at age 83.
His nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said the actor died of complications from Alzheimer’s, holding hands with family members and taking his last breath as Ella Fitzgerald’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” played on a speaker.
“It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived, that I announce the passing of husband, parent and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut,” Walker-Pearlman said in a statement.
“It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.”
Wilder, whose third wife Gilda Radner died of ovarian cancer, was treated for lymphoma in 2000 and had worked only sporadically since.
He was acclaimed for his turn as The Waco Kid in Brooks’s third film, the spoof Western and box office smash “Blazing Saddles.”
The 1974 movie shot down the myths perpetuated about the American West, pouring light on closeted racism, but it is also stacked full of gags and is often listed among critics’ top 10 comedy films.
Brooks and Wilder joined forces on their Oscar-nominated script for the director’s next film, “Young Frankenstein,” which poked fun at the Universal horror pictures of the 1930s.
“Gene Wilder – One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship,” Brooks said on Twitter.
The Milwaukee native, known for his impeccable timing and frizzy hair, got his break in the 1961 off-Broadway production of Arnold Wesker’s “Roots” and followed with his Broadway debut as the comic valet in Graham Greene’s “The Complaisant Lover.”
His other Broadway credits include “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1963), alongside Kirk Douglas, and a production of “Mother Courage and Her Children” a year later, in which he co-starred with Anne Bancroft.
Bancroft was dating Brooks — her future husband — and introduced the pair, who hit it off immediately.
The director showed Wilder an early script entitled “Springtime for Hitler,” which would eventually become “The Producers.”