Gene Wilder's Nephew Remembers Late Actor Who Starred In 'Willy Wonka'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Gene Wilder died today. He was 83 years old. Wilder was born Jerome Silberman in Milwaukee. He rose to fame in 1968 when he starred in a movie that would become a classic, "The Producers" by Mel Brooks.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE PRODUCERS")
ZERO MOSTEL: (As Max Bialystock) What's the matter with you?
GENE WILDER: (As Leo Bloom) I'm hysterical. I'm having hysterics. I'm hysterical. I can't stop when I get like this. I can't stop. I'm hysterical.
SIEGEL: Gene Wilder went on to star in "Young Frankenstein," "Blazing Saddles" and "Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory," among many other movies. His nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, shared the news of Wilder's death writing this (reading) 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. Jordan Walker-Pearlman, welcome to the program. I'm sorry for your loss.
JORDAN WALKER-PEARLMAN: Thank you. Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: Your statement is very beautifully written, and it also reveals your uncle's struggle with Alzheimer's disease...
SIEGEL: ...And with the decision not to make his disease public until now. Tell me about that decision.
WALKER-PEARLMAN: He was diagnosed about three years ago, and he made a personal decision and then a family decision not to disclose that disease. This decision was not as a result of vanity. There were times we would go out to dinner as a family and children would light up at the sight of him and smile. And because he never lost his instinct or sense or sensibility, it occurred to him that if that disease were made public, as regards him, that then after that smile, some parent may then say something about disease or sadness. And he was such that he could not bear to be responsible for one less smile in the world.
SIEGEL: And did that continue to happen, his being recognized by children, even in recent years?
WALKER-PEARLMAN: He was always recognized by children and all kinds of people. But in restaurants - particularly in the last year or two, the restaurants we would go to, which sometimes would be more family restaurants than where he would take me back in the day, there would be children there. And they always recognized him, and they always had that smile, that look of wonder. And he would never want to take that look of wonder away from them.
SIEGEL: Your uncle, Gene Wilder, was really one of the great comic actors of his generation...
WALKER-PEARLMAN: May I - actors with a great talent for comedy.
SIEGEL: All right, he would say, I am an actor, not a clown. Obviously, that distinction is important to you today and it was to him. Why?
WALKER-PEARLMAN: Because he came to humor from a very emotional place. His mother was very ill when he was 9 or 10 years old. That was my grandmother. And the doctor said, don't make her angry 'cause if you do, you could kill her. But you can make her laugh. So he found a way to make her laugh, but it was all based on emotion.
And then he fell in love with acting. And he trained at the Royal Vic in London and became a Broadway theater actor. But he had this emotional gift for comedy that was rooted in his experience and also rooted in his talent as an actor, whereas a comic - he loved comics. But a comic is somebody who masters jokes. He could be the funniest man in the world, but he wouldn't be interested in telling a joke.
SIEGEL: Your statement on his death describes the moment he died. Can you tell us a bit about that and what was happening?
WALKER-PEARLMAN: Well, it was a little earlier than we had expected. I caught a flight at the last minute. My wife had gotten here, my cousin Kevin (ph) had gotten here. And my Aunt Karen (ph) was here. And for a day, we thought we had more than a few days. At that last moment, we said our final goodbyes. We had a chicken dinner that my cousin Kevin made 'cause it was his favorite. And we went upstairs, and my wife had gone and said, the nurse says it's happening. It's happening now. He held my hand. He held my aunt's hand.
And incredibly, on a random speaker playlist, Ella Fitzgerald, who was his favorite singer, started to sing "Somewhere Over The Rainbow."
SIEGEL: Jordan Walker-Pearlman, thank you so much for talking with us about your uncle, the late Gene Wilder.
WALKER-PEARLMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.