You know the feeling you get when you’re watching something magical on screen as a child? Your stomach fills with butterflies, and you feel tingles as imagery, music, and words come together to create something incredibly special. To your younger self, it represents a perfect moment in time; and memories that will be ingrained in your mind forever. At nine years old, sitting by the fire with a Christmas chill in the air, this is what my recollection is of seeing Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the first time. And while I remember being mesmerised by Wilder with his almost hypnotic, pitch-perfect voice, bright blue eyes and eccentric costume, I vividly recall how I felt; safe yet slightly scared (the Oompa Loompas were figures of fear) and excited in the way a nine-year-old can be when she realises that she too could possibly go on magical adventures and someday meet her very own Willy Wonka. And most of all, I felt joy.
It’s a film I watch religiously every Christmas, and I still get those feelings. Only this coming Christmas, the spark will dampen; the joy will fade ever-so-slightly as Willy Wonka himself is no longer with us.
The brilliant actor died Monday at his home in Stamford, Conn. According to his nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman, he died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
His nephew said in a statement, “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. 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.”
And yet we have one less smile. His appearance in Charlie became his iconic role, yet he was revered for a string of roles and his comedic talent was second-to-none.He was a twice Oscar-nominated performer and one who regularly stole the show in such comedic gems as The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Stir Crazy as well as his countless roles on television and Broadway. He was also a published author.
He usually portrayed a neurotic who veered between total hysteria and dewy-eyed tenderness, yet how we loved him for it. “My quiet exterior used to be a mask for hysteria,” he told Time magazine in 1970. “After seven years of analysis, it just became a habit.”
Tributes have already started pouring in for Wilder, from his co-stars to fans.
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.
— Mel Brooks (@MelBrooks) August 29, 2016
RIP dear, wonderful Gene Wilder. What an influence you were in my life. Thank you for all that joy. https://t.co/vzheeZCGLz
— Julia Louis-Dreyfus (@OfficialJLD) August 29, 2016
RIP Gene Wilder. We’ll miss the movies, the magic, but most of all, the joy he gave us.