The year 2016 continues to be the saddest year on record, as we are again forced to share news of another beloved celebrity passing away. Gene Wilder, the star of many of the funniest and most acclaimed comedies of all time, has died at the age of 83, according to a statement from his family shared by the Associated Press on Monday. The actor suffered complications of Alzheimer’s Disease.
To make things even sadder, his friend and frequent collaborator Mel Brooks tweeted the following shortly after the news broke.
Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, WI, and caught his first big break appearing in Off-Broadway plays. He picked up a few small television roles in the early ’60s before appearing in Arthur Penn’s landmark 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde in the role of Eugene Grizzard.
That same year, Wilder found his first slice of comedic success opposite Zero Mostel in Mel Brooks‘ first film, The Producers. His Leo Bloom was manic and neurotic; a zany, out-there portrayal that offset Mostel’s slimier aged Broadway huckster. It’s still one of the funniest movies ever made, and Wilder showed his genius early.
In 1971, Wilder became an icon to children anywhere with his mannered, underplayed (most of the time) performance as the eccentric and magical candy maker in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He’s equal parts warm and terrifying in the film and even though the movie is about Charlie Bucket, the movie takes off when we begin the tour of the factory with Wonka. His centerpiece song “Pure Imagination” is still a thing of magic.
Wilder continued going from strength to strength, but in 1974, he had one of his biggest years consisting of four different projects, two of which reunited him with Mel Brooks. Blazing Saddles had Wilder playing Jim, the alcoholic, suicidal lovelorn cowboy who teams up with newly appointed sheriff Bart (Cleavon Little). Once again, Wilder underplays the lines, laconically and smoothly, before erupting with energy to accentuate a joke. And Wilder and Brooks co-wrote their next film together, the beautiful love letter to Universal horror, Young Frankenstein, with Wilder in the title role, a man attempting to create life from dead flesh. It continues to be one of the standout performances–and films–in all of comedy.
Following that truly breakout year, Wilder was able to write and direct several films, including The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975, The World’s Greatest Lover in 1977, and Haunted Honeymoon in 1986 opposite his wife, Gilda Radner. He also made a series of popular comedies opposite Richard Pryor directed by the likes of Arthur Hiller and Sidney Poitier, which included Silver Streak in 1976, Stir Crazy in 1980, and See No Evil, Hear No Evil in 1989.
In later years, Wilder retreated from Hollywood, only appearing in a few choice projects in the ’90s forward. He had a short-lived sitcom called Something Wilder in 1994, appeared in a few A&E mystery TV movies as literary detective Cash Carter, and made two highly memorable guest appearances on the sitcom titan Will & Grace. His final credit comes from an episode of Yo Gabba Gabba! in 2015 voicing a character called Elmer.
Though a relatively small filmography given how much he’s meant to the world of cinema, Gene Wilder leaves behind a dozen brilliant films that became a hallmark of low key yet still frantic comedy, shifting from cool to unhinged on a dime. Comedy in the latter half of the 20th Century would simply not be the same without him. He will be missed.
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Kyle Anderson is the Associate Editor for Nerdist. Follow him on Twitter!