Gene Wilder, remembered by many for his lead role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, died Monday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Tributes from the comedy world came within minutes of the news emerging, but perhaps the most beautiful statement came from his nephew, who revealed why Wilder decided to keep his illness a secret.
Jordan Walker-Pearlman announced it was his uncle’s dedication to the magic of his most famous character, Willy Wonka, that drove him to keep his battle with Alzheimer’s private.
A bittersweet statement on Gene Wilder from his nephew Jordan Walker Pearlman, why he kept his illness private. pic.twitter.com/m3axKdYwUu
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) August 29, 2016
He said in his statement:
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.
He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.
Walker-Pearlman added that the disease ‘never stole [Wilder’s] ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality,’ and he continued to enjoy ‘art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen.’
The revelation has prompted an outpour of emotion from fans:
@ditzkoff I can't see this post anymore because my eyes are filled with tears— Scott Stein (@jetscott) August 29, 2016
@ditzkoff "he couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world" is perhaps one of the loveliest things I've ever read...— beth can't with this (@bourgeoisalien) August 29, 2016
@ditzkoff Oh, this made me cry (but not in a bad way). Thank you for posting.— Linda Essig (@LindaInPhoenix) August 29, 2016
Born Jerome Silberman, the comic actor also starred in classic films such as The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. He had previously been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989.
And Hollywood hasn’t forgotten him:
Gene Wilder-One of the truly great talents of our time. He blessed every film we did with his magic & he blessed me with his friendship.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
I saw Blazing Saddles 7 times at the cinema with my school friends . George St. Cows outside.
Gene Wilder you were a genius. Rest in Peace.
— Russell Crowe (@russellcrowe) August 29, 2016
He was always able to make us smile, and that is no small feat. Rest with the stars, Gene Wilder. pic.twitter.com/kxis66bIGd
— George Takei (@GeorgeTakei) August 29, 2016
Gene Wilder as one of my earliest heroes. Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka, are CLINICS on comic acting. Sad to hear of his passing.
— Rob Lowe (@RobLowe) August 29, 2016
RIP Gene Wilder – you were one of the great ones.