Gene Wilder, Beloved Jewish Film Star, Dies at 83

August 30, 2016

2 min read

Gene Wilder, one of America’s most beloved Jewish actors of the 20th century, passed away on Monday at the age of 83 from complications due to Alzheimer’s disease.

Perhaps best known for playing the title role in 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”, Wilder also shone in now-classic comedies such as “The Producers”, “Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles”, which were all collaborations with legendary Jewish producer and actor Mel Brooks.

Brooks, calling Wilder one of the “truly great talents of our time”, eulogized the actor in a Tweet.

Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Wisconsin to Jewish parents and began acting as a teenager. He studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre in Bristol, England, and later at the Actors Studio.

He started his acting career on the stage before moving into film, going on to star in over 20 movies and television shows and gaining fame with major hits like “Willy Wonka”.

Part of a comic duo with actor Richard Pryor, Wilder acted in several movies with the comedian, including “Silver Streak” and “Stir Crazy”. The two were close friends.

In a less-known role, Wilder played Rabbi Avram Belinsky, a Polish rabbi traveling through the Wild West, in the 1979 film “Frisco Kid”.

Wilder identified as a cultural Jew, writing in a 2005 memoir, “I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”

Fellow celebrities took to Twitter to remember the star.

Wilder was also involved in goodwill causes. After his wife Gila Radner died in 1989 of ovarian cancer, he became involved in promoting cancer research and opened a support facility for cancer patients.

While he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years earlier, he had kept it private so that his young fans would continue to associate him with his Willy Wonka character rather than a sick old man, said his nephew in a 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,” Jordan Walker-Pearlman explained.

“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”

Gene Wilder as Polish Rabbi Avram Belinsky in “The Frisco Kid”

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