It has been more than a week since the news of Gene Wilder’s death made millions of us suddenly very sad, and details about the last year of the comedic genius’s life are still emerging. Wilder died of complications associated with Alzheimer’s disease, something that shocked most of his fans. So why did Wilder and his family keep his diagnosis a secret?
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Jordan Walker-Pearlman, Wilder’s nephew, issued a statement after his death explaining his uncle’s passing. “It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him,” Pearlman wrote.
“The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him ‘there’s Willy Wonka,’ would not have to be then exposed to an adult, referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion,” Pearlman said. “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
This is the type of performer Wilder was. In an interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Wilder explained his disdain for show business. “I hate show business,” he said. He went on the explain that it wasn’t acting, or performing that he despised, but the back-end, behind the scenes elements of the business itself. The part of the business he loved was writing and acting. He felt passionately about his comedy, and about the way comedy and pathos are so closely related. His performance as Willy Wonka is the best example.
Wilder’s Wonka has an ominously hollow stare that belies the depression that forced him into seclusion.
Wilder’s work on Wonka continues to inspire new generations of film makers. Check out this stunning stop-motion video from PermaGrinFilms. It has the imagination in spades, but undercuts the joy with minor intonations in the soundtrack.
Gene Wilder was an incomparable talent. He was a master of comedy capable of amazing dramatic depth. He wrote and performed for us, his audience, until the last.
Wilder, who was 83 when he passed away, was listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s cover of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in his final moments.