On August 29, 2016, the world lost one the greatest comedic performers, in my opinion, of all time. Gene Wilder, known to many as the iconic “Willy Wonka” from the classic film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 83. Before his passing, only those closest to him knew he was suffering from the debilitating condition. His nephew released a statement after his death letting the public know Mr. Wilder was afflicted by the unforgiving illness, stating his uncle was still able to recognize his loved ones and was cogent enough to request his family keep his diagnosis secret until after he was gone.
His nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, was sure to make it clear his reason for doing so was not out of vanity, but rather to protect the countless children who looked up to him as the eccentric candy man of their dreams. Wilder stated he didn’t believe kids should have to deal with the heartbreak and sadness of such a grown-up issue, especially in a world that so often doesn’t make sense. As an adult in my forties, I’m glad I didn’t know, either. Much as I’m able to understand the reality of aging and death, he was one of my heroes, too.
While it hit me like a ton of bricks when I heard he died, I was grateful that up until that moment, I “knew” him as someone who lived to make the world a shinier, happier place. I will never forget the first time I saw “Blazing Saddles” (or the first time I saw it and actually understood its genius.) I’ll always remember watching his luminous turn as the neurotic ‘Frahnkensteen’ in “Young Frankenstein” alongside comedy giants Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr and Cloris Leachman, his undeniable chemistry with Richard Pryor in films like “Stir Crazy” and “See No Evil, Hear No Evil” and, of course, his delicious portrayal of Willy Wonka.
I can’t think of a day that goes by where I don’t quote one of his movies at least once.
Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder gained notoriety in 1968 after starring in Mel Brooks’ “The Producers,” which would eventually lead to a decades-long collaboration and friendship with the equally brilliant filmmaker. Regarding his performances, Wilder stated on more than one occasion that comedy shouldn’t be forced; no one should try to make something funny, they should try to make it real. He often said, “I’m an actor, not a clown.”
While some may view the loss of a beloved entertainer as less important than other issues we face in the world, I think it’s worth not only mentioning, but honoring. So much of what is missing from our everyday lives is the reminder to laugh. To relax. To suspend disbelief, even if it’s only for a few hours or so. The impact that art has on our personhood is so frequently underrated but so terribly important. Who would we be without our favorite movies? Songs? Pictures? Paintings? Poems? Books?
So much of who I am personally has been shaped by the culture I’ve been exposed to throughout my life. In this year alone, we’ve lost some of the greatest contributors whose lives were dedicated to the art of escapism. Harper Lee. Patty Duke. David Bowie. Prince. Jack Elliot. Garry Marshall. Ruby Wilson. Kenny Baker. Muhammad Ali. I could go on but the list is, sadly, much too long.
With Wilder’s passing comes the reminder that eventually, everything ends. It’s times like these I’m reminded that what truly matters in life is how good you treat yourself and those around you. Money, material possessions, politics and having the last word don’t seem as important when you realize the ones you love the most will be gone before you know it.
I didn’t know Mr. Wilder personally, but I still want to thank him for all the joy he brought to my life. Because of him, I laughed with my family, shared jokes with my friends, chortled until I cried and bonded with my own kids through what will forever be treasured memories. Couldn’t we all use a little more of that kind of joy in our lives?
As Willy Wonka sang, “Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination. Take a look and you’ll see into your imagination.”
RIP, Gene Wilder. You will be sorely missed.