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Gene Wilder, star of ‘Willy Wonka’ and other classic comedies, dies at 83

(JTA) — Gene Wilder, a comedic actor known for playing wild-eyed eccentrics such as the titular characters in “Young Frankenstein” and “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory,” has died at 83.

Wilder, who was Jewish, died Sunday from complications of Alzheimer’s disease, his nephew, filmmaker Jordan Walker-Pearlman, told The Associated Press. Walker-Pearlman said in a statement that the song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing in the room as the actor passed away.

Born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1933, Wilder later adopted his stage name, saying he couldn’t imagine a marquee reading “Jerome Silberman as ‘Hamlet.'”

He worked closely with Jewish director Mel Brooks. In addition to starring in Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” as the American grandson of the creator of the famous monster, he portrayed accountant Leo Bloom in “The Producers” opposite “Fiddler on the Roof” star Zero Mostel’s Max Bialystock, and a hard-drinking, pot-smoking gunman, the Waco Kid, in the satirical Western “Blazing Saddles.”

The New York Times called Wilder’s performance in “Young Frankenstein,” which he co-wrote with Brooks, a “marvelous addled mixture of young Tom Edison, Winnie-the-Pooh, and your average Playboy reader with a keen appreciation of beautiful bosoms.” “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein,” were, respectively, the top and fourth-highest grossing movies of 1974.

Brooks was one of the first to react to the somber news in touching fashion, writing on Twitter: 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.

In 1972, Wilder appeared in the Woody Allen film “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).” Wilder also starred as Avram Belinski, a rabbi who befriends a bank robber played by a young Harrison Ford, in the 1979 Western comedy “The Frisco Kid.” He and the late comedian Richard Pryor also teamed up in a series of black-Jewish buddy movies, including “Stir Crazy” and  “Silver Streak.”

Wilder was married four times, including to Jewish comedian Gilda Radner in 1984. Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Following her death, Wilder became active in promoting cancer awareness and research, co-founding “Gilda’s Club,” a nonprofit organization providing support to those affected by cancer. In 1991, he married Karen Webb, a speech therapist, and the couple was together until Wilder’s death.

Besides Mel Brooks, countless other celebrities also took to Twitter to pay heartfelt tributes to the actor once described by The New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael as a “magnetic blur” who made barely controlled hysteria “his dazzling specialty.”

Here are a few:

Debra Messing

A man who lit up the world with his joy and genius. I can’t say what it meant to act with him and get to know his heart.

Josh Groban

Thank you Gene Wilder for the wonderful, the weird, the pure imagination. One of my greatest heroes.

Jeffrey Tambor

Gene Wilder–
There are no words–
Brilliantly brilliant

Jim Carrey

Gene Wilder was one of the funniest and sweetest energies ever to take a human form. If there’s a heaven he has a Golden Ticket.

George Takai

He was always able to make us smile, and that is no small feat. Rest with the stars, Gene Wilder.

Kevin Smith

GENE WILDER, the face of childhood joy for many a generation, has passed. Farewell, sweet genius. Gilda awaits you.

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