Gene Wilder, who established himself as one of America’s foremost comic actors with his delightfully neurotic performances in three films directed by Mel Brooks, his eccentric star turn in the family classic “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” and his winning chemistry with Richard Pryor in the box-office smash “Stir Crazy,” died on Sunday night in Connecticut. He was 83.
Eric Weissmann, who was Mr. Wilder’s lawyer for many years, confirmed the death. A nephew said the cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, The Associated Press reported. Mr. Wilder lived in Stamford, Conn.
Mr. Wilder’s rule for comedy was simple: Don’t try to make it funny, try to make it real. “I’m an actor, not a clown,” he said more than once.
With his haunted blue eyes and an empathy born of his own history of psychic distress, he aspired to touch audiences much as Charlie Chaplin had. The Chaplin film “City Lights,” he said, had “made the biggest impression on me as an actor; it was funny, then sad, then both at the same time.”
Mr. Wilder was an accomplished stage actor as well as a screenwriter, a novelist and the director of four movies in which he starred. (He directed, he once said, “in order to protect what I wrote, which I wrote in order to act.”) But he was best known for playing roles on the big screen that might have been ripped from the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
He made his movie debut in 1967 in Arthur Penn’s celebrated crime drama “Bonnie and Clyde,” in which he was memorably hysterical as an undertaker kidnapped by the notorious Depression-era bank robbers played by Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty. He was even more hysterical, and even more memorable, a year later in “The Producers,” Mr. Brooks’s first film and the basis of his later Broadway hit.