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Comedy legend Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka,’ dies at 83

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Gene Wilder, the comedic legend who captivated the world with his unique take on a wide array of characters, has died, according to the Associated Press. The creator of iconic roles like Willy Wonka and “young” Frankenstein was 83. Wilder’s nephew told the AP on Monday afternoon that Wilder succumbed to complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

The actor was known for his brilliant comedic timing and for taking on interesting roles that helped rewrite the comedy template. Wilder was nominated twice for Academy Awards during his career (per Variety), including for his role in Mel Brooks’ acclaimed musical comedy The Producers, as well as for co-writing the horror parody Young Frankenstein.

Wilder first gained mainstream fame with his role as the drunken sharpshooter Jim in Mel Brooks’ Western satire Blazing Saddles. The seminal 1974 film took on racial tensions with unabashed aplomb, and starred Cleavon Little as a black sheriff, with Wilder as his only compatriot in a bigoted Wild West town. Wilder’s second film that year, Young Frankenstein, was another success, putting his star firmly on the map.

He then went on to write and direct his own films, achieving mild success with films like The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother, and The World’s Greatest Lover.

Wilder was also known for his comedy partnership with Richard Pryor, collaborating with the electrifying stand-up comedian on several successful films, including hits like Silver Streak and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. His last collaboration with Pryor came with 1991’s Another You. The two made for a perfect odd couple on screen — Wilder with his understated, schoolboy charm seemed to be a perfect mismatch to Pryor’s brazen comedic style, accentuated by his no-holds barred stage appearances.

But it was Wilder’s electrifying turn as Willy Wonka in the film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that would become a defining moment in his long career. Wilder’s engaging mix of derangement and enigmatic bemusement helped the film (called Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory) became a cultural icon, and his unforgettable delivery of quotes from the unique story  (“Good day, sir!”) can still be heard in homage today.

Wilder married four times, including to actress Gilda Radner, whom he met on the set of Hanky Panky in 1982. Radner died in 1989, just five years after the two married, from ovarian cancer. Wilder (who was also diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999) founded a cancer outreach network called Gilda’s Club after Radner’s death, working only sporadically in film and TV thereafter.

One of the brightest shining lights in the world of cinematic satire, Wilder — and his wondrous on-screen presence — will be sorely missed. He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, and his nephew.

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