Cinematic comedy legend Gene Wilder died Sunday night of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. He was 83.
Wilder had largely faded from public view; his last acting credit was in 2003. But his family revealed Monday in a statement that the star of “The Producers,” “Young Frankenstein,” and “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago.
They emphasized that the disease “never stole his ability to recognize those that were closest to him, nor took command of his central-gentle-life affirming core personality. It took enough, but not that.”
The Wilder family then sought to explain, in a poignantly candid manner, why they had not made the Oscar-nominated actor’s diagnosis public before. The decision not to disclose “was his choice,” they said, one made “in talking with us and making a decision as a family.”
They said Wilder did not want to disappoint “the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, ‘There’s Willy Wonka'” or expose them to the cruel realities of the disease.
“He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world,” the family said.
Wilder continued to enjoy art and music and his relationship with his wife, Karen, in his last years, the family said.
“He danced down a church aisle at a wedding as parent of the groom and ring bearer, held countless afternoon movie western marathons, and delighted in the company of beloved ones,” they said.
A number of public figures have famously disclosed their Alzheimer’s diagnoses. President Ronald Reagan announced his diagnosis a decade before he died. Others, including Charlton Heston and Charles Bronson, also disclosed their conditions while they were still alive.
Not every person with Alzheimer’s has the opportunity to make that decision. Many people don’t recognize early signs of the disease and wait until it’s too late to see their doctor, said Monica Moreno, the Alzheimer’s Association director of early-stage initiatives.
“What struck all of us was the fact that because Mr. Wilder appears to have gotten an early diagnosis, he was able to have discussions with his family and be a part of the decision-making process,” Moreno said.
But for other patients who delay seeing a doctor, she said, “they lose the opportunity as the disease progresses.”
Moreno noted, though, that “the decision to disclose a diagnosis is such a personal decision” and she said the Wilder Family seemed to be “extremely thoughtful in coming to the decision they made.”