Yesterday morning, August 29th 2016, a simple Google search for ‘Gene Wilder’ would have procured countless links to the life and works of one of Hollywood’s truly iconic faces. This morning, that same search is instead frontloaded with news of his passing. Born Jerome Silberman, 11th June 1933, his choice of professional stage name at the age of 26 can be considered an early teaser for both his whimsical leanings and his innately rich and refined charisma, ‘Gene Wilder’ being a combined homage to a Thomas Wolfe character and novelist Thornton Wilder.
We could go on and detail every chapter of his life from birth to death, and it would certainly make for an interesting read, but like every great novel, the truest pleasure isn’t found in the story being explained by proxy, but to be read and understood first hand. Gene Wilder, as we all knew him, was truly both a man and a character, and the extent to which literature informed so much of his life and what we remember of his work is indicative of this. The definitive Willy Wonka to this day. A hilariously reimagined Dr. Frankenstein, in a film which he co-wrote with Mel Brooks and went on to receive a Best Adapted Screenplay nomination at the Academy Awards. And, whilst not a character with literary roots, even his turn as Jim the ‘Waco Kid’ in Blazing Saddles radiated a sense of untold history. The film may have been a fantastic farce, but Wilder still made you take Jim’s reputation seriously. Quite simply, whatever he did, whoever he played, Wilder was a personality you simply wanted to know more about, someone who knew how much was just the right amount to taste. Cinema history will, in all likelihood, never find a more apt Wonka.
Literature remained a part of his life even as he neared his end and a battle against Alzheimer’s began to take its toll. From his memoir in 2005, Kiss Me Like A Stranger: My Search for Love and Art, to his third and final novel in 2013, almost prophetically named Something to Remember You By, Wilder’s golden years seem by all accounts to have been truly golden. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, Karen Boyer.
The man himself once said, in an interview with Alec Baldwin, “I like show, but I don’t like the business”. It’s been a bit of a sombre year in terms of ‘celebrity’ deaths, but whatever your faith or idea of what comes next, we can at least all agree that the thought of Wilder now able to collaborate with Robin Williams and David Bowie for the ultimate musical comedy is truly, truly heavenly.