The world lost one of its most joyful and beloved entertainers yesterday with the passing of Gene Wilder at the age of 83. The star of The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Young Frankenstein, Stir Crazy and many more memorably hilarious films, Wilder was an endearing, soulful comedy icon. News of his death from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease hit his fans quite hard, especially since few knew he’d been suffering from the disease. And as his nephew has revealed, the reason most were unaware of his condition was that Wilder didn’t want his own hardship to diminish the happiness he and his movies continued to bring to fans.
In a new interview with NPR’s Robert Siegel, Wilder’s nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman explains that his uncle kept his Alzheimer’s diagnosis a secret because he feared that, were it to become public, it would begin to interfere with his ability to bring smiles to people’s faces even in retirement. “This decision was not as a result of vanity,” said Walker-Pearlman. “There were times we would go out to dinner as a family and children would light up at the sight of him and smile. And because he never lost his instinct or sense or sensibility, it occurred to him that if that disease were made public … that then after that smile, some parent may then say something about disease or sadness. And he was such that he could not bear to be responsible for one less smile in the world.”
As it turns out, lots of children often still recognized Wilder, even decades after his 1971 turn as the charismatic candy-maker Willy Wonka. “Particularly in the last year or two, the restaurants we would go to, which sometimes would be more family restaurants than where he would take me back in the day, there would be children there,” said Walker-Pearlman. “And they always recognized him, and they always had that smile, that look of wonder. And he would never want to take that look of wonder away from them.”
Wilder himself discussed fans’ continuing love for Willy Wonka when he sat down with Robert Osborne at New York City’s 92nd Street Y in 2013, confessing (in the video below) that even decades later, “they stop me all the time with that one” — and revealing that he continued to receive up to five letters a day from admirers asking for an autographed picture of him in character.
In that 2013 chat, Wilder recounts how, on Willy Wonka, he was the one who suggested to director Mel Stuart that his character make his now-famous cane-enabled entrance. That attention to detail was emblematic of the actor’s approach to his candy-man role, as evidenced by a handwritten letter from him to Stuart (via Entertainment Weekly) in which he proposed exhaustive ideas regarding the costume he’d wear in the film.
Wilder’s decision to keep his affliction private isn’t surprising when one also considers that, in 2000, he was (according to People magazine) similarly reluctant to divulge that he was undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he first learned he had a year earlier. No doubt that diagnosis hit exceptionally close to home, given that his third wife, comedian Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at the age of 42. Wilder established the nationwide cancer support network Gilda’s Club in her memory.
Wilder is survived by his fourth wife, Karen Webb, as well as his daughter, Katharine. He’ll be missed by anyone who ever smiled at one of his many masterful performances.