Hollywood star Gene Wilder died while listening to one of his favourite singers, Ella Fitzgerald perform Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
It was confirmed on Monday that the 83-year-old actor had passed away earlier this month from complications linked to Alzheimer’s disease at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
A touching statement released on behalf of his family by nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman, revealed his final moments: “He was eighty-three and passed holding out hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember.
“As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favourites: Ella Fitzgerald.
He continued: “There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each or cherished possessions. She was singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow as he was taken away.”
The statement was signed off by one of Wilder’s most iconic lines from his greatest role of Willy Wonka, who he brought to life in the 1971 classic.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams,” it read.
Wilder, who had battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1989, was known as a comic genius whose timing made him a favourite of Hollywood directors.
As well as starring in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory he was also well known for appearing in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and Stir Crazy.
Mr Walker-Pearlman said the actor had chosen to keep his Alzheimer’s secret so that children who knew him as Willy Wonka would not equate the whimsical character with an adult disease.
Making the announcement, he said: It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parents and universal artist Gene Wilder at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.
The news of his death led to an outpouring of grief from Hollywood with his friend Mel Brooks leading the tributes.
The director said: 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.
Rob Lowe wrote, Gene Wilder as one of my earliest heroes. Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka, are CLINICS on comic acting. Sad to hear of his passing.
Russell Crowe said: 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.
Oscar-nominated Juliette Lewis added: Thank you for the beautiful words.
Leave your tributes to Gene Wilder in the comments below
Britain’s own funnyman Ricky Gervais simply used one of the star’s most famous quotes from Willy Wonka writing on Twitter: Good Day Sir!’ RIP Gene Wilder.
The frizzy-haired actor was often cast as characters who showed signs of neurotic or hysteric behaviour.
My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria, he told Time magazine in 1970.
After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.
Twice nominated for an Oscar, his glittering career faltered after the death of his wife Gilda Radner, who he starred alongside in The Woman in Red, which left him devastated.
Friends say he never really got over her passing from ovarian cancer in 1989 and Wilder only worked infrequently after she died.
He married again in 1991 to Karen Boyer.
He returned briefly to television in the US with the sitcom Something Wilder, in 1994 and won an Emmy in 2003 for a guest role on Will & Grace.
Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in June 1933, he began acting at the age of eight when his mother was diagnosed with rheumatic fever.
The family’s doctor told the then schoolboy to “try and make her laugh to take her mind off the pain she suffered.
After studying drama for two years when he turned 13 his mother Jeanne Silberman felt her son’s potential was not being fully realised and sent him instead to Black-Foxe, a military institute in Hollywood.
Following his graduation after studying Communication and Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa, he was accepted at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Bristol in 1955.
But his time in the UK was short lived after he was drafted into the army the following year.
He adopted Gene Wilder for his professional name at the age of 26, explaining, “I had always liked Gene because of Thomas Wolfe’s character Eugene Gant in Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River. And I was always a great admirer of Thornton Wilder.
Following a short stint off-Broadway in 1961 Wilder won critical acclaim in Graham Greene’s comedy The Complaisant Lover.
It saw him awarded the Clarence Derwent Award as most promising newcomer but more importantly brought him to the attention of Mel Brooks.
When Wilder performed with the director’s future wife Anne Bancroft in Mother Courage it became the start of a long and famed friendship between the two men.
It led to the actor being cast in the 1967 film The Producers, in which he played the hysterical Leo Bloom, an accountant lured into a money making scam by a theatrical producer played by Zero Mostel.
Directed and written by Brooks, the film brought Wilder an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor spring-boarding him into more Hollywood roles.
In 1971 he stepped into the shoes of Willie Wonka.
Based on the children’s book by Roald Dahl, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory was not an immediate hit but became a children’s favourite over the years.
Now established in Hollywood Wilder achieved further stardom in two other Brooks comedies, both in 1974.
Western spoof Blazing Saddles and a wacko adaptation of Mary Shelley’s famous book entitled Young Frankenstein, in which Wilder portrayed the mad scientist with his signature mixture of hysteria and sweetness both enjoyed box office success.
The 1980’s movie Stir Crazy starring Richard Pryor became the then biggest grossing movie earning more than $100 million.
He is survived by his fourth wife Karen Boyer, who he married in 1991 and his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman who himself has become a director.
His sister Corinne died in January this year.
He also has a daughter, Katharine, whom he adopted in 1967 when he married her mother Mary Joan Schute.
It is with indescribable sadness and blues, but with spiritual gratitude for the life lived that I announce the passing of husband, parent and universal artist Gene Wilder, at his home in Stamford, Connecticut.
It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.
The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s Disease with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family.
We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones – the illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough but not that.
The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity, but more so that the countless young children 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.
He continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen.
He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons and delighted in the company of beloved ones.
He is survived by Karen[wife], Jordan [nephew] and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer)[wife’s family], along with Jordan’s wife Elizabeth. Gene’s sister Corinne, predeceased him in January of this year.
He was eighty three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember.
As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath, the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald.
There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London Bistro some years ago that are among each oUr cherished possessions. She was singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ as he was taken away’
‘We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.’
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