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The Reason Why Gene Wilder’s Family Kept His Struggle With Alzheimer's A Secret

He had the neurodegenerative disease for three years

via Flickr user (cc) Caoline Bonardi Ucci

At the heart of Gene Wilder’s onscreen persona was an amazing contradiction that made it impossible to take your eyes off him. At the surface, he was doe-eyed, soft-spoken, and intelligent. But boiling under this façade was always a madman ready to surface. It was this unique characteristic that brought an unexpected layer of depth to iconic comedies such as Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein and Blazing Saddles. But he may have employed this unique gift best as star of the eccentric factory owner in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.


Sadly, the world lost a true artist today when Wilder passed away at the age of 83 due to complications of Alzheimers’s disease. But few knew that Wilder was suffering from the neurodegenerative disease and that was for one beautiful reason. “The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn’t vanity,” his family said in a statement. “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. He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,”

Here’s the family’s complete statement on Wilder’s passing:

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, at his home in Stamford Connecticut. It is almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him.

The cause was complications from Alzheimer’s disease, with which he co-existed for the last three years. The choice to keep this private was his choice, in talking with us and making a decision as a family. We understand for all the emotional and physical challenges this situation presented we have been among the lucky ones – this illness-pirate, unlike in so many cases, never stole his ability to recognise those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.

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

He was eighty-three and passed holding our hands with the same tenderness and love he exhibited as long as I can remember. As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to blare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he and Ella meeting at a London bistro some years ago that are among each our cherished possessions. She was singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow as he was taken away.

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