Gene Wilder's Most Unforgettable Roles: Willy Wonka Alone Would Have Made Him a Legend, but There's So Much More

Comedic actor and author, best known for his roles in Mel Brooks-directed comedies and the title role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, has died at 83

By Natalie Finn Aug 29, 2016 9:02 PMTags

We're guessing the reason why they went with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory instead of sticking with Charlie in the title, as dictated by the Roald Dahl tale, had something to do with the film's leading man.

Because once Gene Wilder donned that top hat, cocked his head and that look of Peter Pan wonder tinged with brilliance and more than a dash of mania radiated from his crystal-blue eyes, the 1971 classic was his.

Wilder, whose comedic performances were rooted in brilliantly frantic energy and his ability to churn out one perfectly timed turn of phrase after another, died Monday at 83. His family says he had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease.

The actor, author and activist leaves behind a most watchable body of work—watchable as in, we need toes and fingers to count all the times we've seen even just a few of his films over and over again. He tended to steal every scene he was in, even when he was matching wits with some of the biggest personalities in the business—and though he was a lauded actor, every role he played was unmistakably him at the same time.

In honor of the late star, here are some of the most unforgettable roles from a very unique career:

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory Star Gene Wilder Dead at 83

Bonnie & ClydeIn his big-screen debut in 1967, Wilder played one half of a talkative couple who seem thrilled to have been taken hostage by the titular bank robbers. Oh, he's over the moon... until his girlfriend tells Bonnie she's 33.

Embassy Pictures

The ProducersWilder scored his first Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor for the role of Leo Bloom, the accountant with nerves of whatever's the opposite of steel who teams with Zero Mostel's crooked theater producer to put on an intentional flop. Wilder's transition from hysterical to hysterical and wet is the reason why Matthew Broderick was close but no cigar in the mega-hit Broadway musical adaptation. 

The 1967 original was the first of four films Wilder starred in for director Mel Brooks. "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," Brooks tweeted today.

Celebrity Collaborations

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory"You get nothing! You lose! Good day, sir!" 

No one ever delivered the final test of a child's integrity with more vehement deception—or more hilariously. Every line Wilder uttered or sang as the titular candy man who takes five lucky kids and their parents (and Grandpa Joe) on a tour of his famous factory in hopes of finding a successor is as golden as those tickets.

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * But Were Afraid to AskWilder is a scene-stealing (what else?) doctor whose attempt to process the revelation that his patient is in love with a sheep is everything you always want to see on screen but rarely get.

Blazing SaddlesWilder is a mild-mannered gunslinger and recovering alcoholic in the Wild West who tries to help Rock Ridge's new black sheriff ingratiate himself to a town full of racist buffoons in the Brooks-directed classic, widely considered one of the greatest comedies of all time.


Young Frankenstein"It's Franken-shteen." Wilder and Brooks co-wrote the 1974 classic about the grandson of the infamous scientist who didn't quite understand what sort of force he was unleashing on the world. In this case, it was a deadpan duet of "Puttin' on the Ritz." 

Actors Turned Directors
TriStar Pictures

See No Evil, Hear No EvilNone of the four R-rated comedies Wilder and Richard Pryor starred in together would be considered politically correct—Wilder had a scene in black face in Silver Streak (the best-reviewed of all four)—and this one, in which Wilder's deaf man and Pryor's blind man combine to make a very imperfect witness to a murder is no exception. But this film came out when I was a kid, wins because it was the first time I had heard that many F-words all at once.

Chris Haston/NBCU Photo Bank

Will & GraceHis last starring TV role came in the short-lived sitcom Something Wilder, but he won an Emmy for Best Guest Actor in a Comedy Series for his turn as Will's quirky boss, Mr. Stein.

In an interview for Turner Classic Movies in 2008, Wilder told Alec Baldwin he was effectively retired from show business, never having been much of a fan of the "business" part. He told Robert Osborne in 2013 that, as opposed to missing acting, he liked writing books, having just finished his sixth. Any more from the man, on the screen or on the page, would have been welcome.

RIP, Gene Wilder. Every one of us lost today.

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