The late comedian and actor Gene Wilder kept his Alzheimer’s diagnosis secret and suffered with the disease for three years, his heartbroken family has revealed.
The family of the Blazing Saddles star broke their silence following his death Monday in a statement written by Wilder's nephew.
“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,” Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement.
He passed away at his home in Stamford, Connecticut, at the age of 83 holding hands with family members as everyone sang his favorite song, "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
Walker-Pearlman said: "As our hands clutched and he performed one last breath the music speaker, which was set to random, began to bare out one of his favorites: Ella Fitzgerald. There is a picture of he [sic] and Ella meeting at a London bistro some years ago that are among each [of] our cherished possessions. She was singing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' as he was taken away."
In the statement, his nephew said the family will find it "almost unbearable for us to contemplate our life without him."
The last time the comic legend was seen in public was nearly a year ago at the U.S. Open in Queens, New York. He sat with his wife of 25 years, Karen Boyer, and looked frail.
Wilder will best be remembered for his iconic roles in Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and also for his partnership with Richard Pryor in Silver Streak, Another You and See No Evil, Hear No Evil.
The actor was married four times. In 1960, he and Mary Mercier walked down the aisle before divorcing five years later. In 1967 he married Mary Joan Schutz, who divorced in 1974.
Wilder's third wife, Saturday Night Live legend Gilda Radner, died of ovarian cancer in 1989. They married in 1984.
In 1991, he married Karen Boyer, his longest marriage.
Wilder had one child, Katharine, whom he adopted in 1967. Katharine was the daughter of his second wife. In his 2005 book, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, he wrote that he and Katharine have been estranged for a long time.