The Many Sides of Gene Wilder: Photos of the Late ‘Willy Wonka’ Star Through the Years

It’s difficult to think about Gene Wilder and not have thoughts of Everlasting Gobstoppers, snozzberry-flavored wallpaper or Wonka Bars come to mind. Though Gene is remembered for his role as Willy Wonka, he experienced plenty of other career accomplishments both before and after the chocolate factory.

The late actor’s iconic performance as the title character of 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory touched several generations of viewers, giving them a family film of pure imagination that, to many, rivals the magic of something like The Wizard of Oz. Interestingly, Gene himself was not one of its biggest fans.

Brian Scott Mednick, who wrote the definitive biography of the multi-hyphenate, Gene Wilder: Funny and Sad, exclusively explained to Closer Weekly, “I interviewed Mel Stuart, the director of Willy Wonka, for the book, and he just raved about Gene and about how much the kids all loved him. But Gene called Stuart a maniac who yelled at everyone — not him — and thought that created an unpleasant environment on the set. He gave an interview once where he said he did not want his gravestone to say, ‘Here Lies Willy Wonka,’ yet ironically, he did not have much choice about his legacy.”

Though Gene was proud of his legendary role, the actor “wanted to be most remembered” for his portrayal in 1974’s Young Frankenstein, the author dished to Closer in April 2019. “When he died, all the news outlets highlighted his role as Willy Wonka above everything else.”

That collective response from the media, he said, isn’t surprising considering the fact that those previously mentioned generations have grown up on Willy Wonka, just as they had The Wizard of Oz. “I’ve seen the movie probably 40 times,” Brian explained, “I own the DVD and, still, if I am flipping channels and turn it on halfway, I wind up watching it until the end. It’s just magical.”

It’s obvious the author felt the same way about Gene himself, given that he spent around 15 years researching and writing Funny and Sad. “Why Gene Wilder?” he asked rhetorically. “What is it about this neurotic Jewish guy from Milwaukee with all that frizzy blond hair that hooked me at such an early age? Well, I think it was probably a sense of identification. There are few lonely moviegoers out there who don’t have at least one actor or actress they feel speaks directly to them. In every character Gene Wilder played, I saw a little bit of me. There is a very fine line between comedy and tragedy, and I can think of no other actor who walked that tightrope better than Gene Wilder.”

“There are few actors out there with a reputation of just being a nice guy that seemed to fit the bill better than him. “That was the constant theme among everyone I interviewed,” he continued. “It got to the point that I was wishing for one person to call him a jerk and say that he poisoned pigeons in the park or something. I mean, I wanted to sell some books here! But his colleagues found working with him to be among the highlights of their careers. Everyone spoke so highly of him, even people he never met. I was speaking on the phone with Jerry Lewis about 16 years ago about something totally unrelated to my book, and he knew I was writing it, and said he had ‘such high regard’ for Gene Wilder and regretted that they never met.”

For more on Gene’s incredible life and to see photos of the late star through the years, scroll through the gallery below.

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