Gene Wilder’s death on Sunday from complications from Alzheimer’s disease came as something of a surprise, since the actor’s diagnosis had not previously been disclosed to the public. And that’s how Wilder wanted it, according to a statement made by nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman, who explains that though Wilder was diagnosed three years ago, he preferred to shield children who recognized him as Willy Wonka from learning about the disease: “He simply couldn’t bear the idea of one less smile in the world.”
Walker-Pearlman’s statement also describes the circumstances of Wilder’s death, including that Ella Fitzgerald’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was playing at the moment he died, surrounded by his family.
The full statement is below:
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 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 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 continued to enjoy art, music, and kissing with his leading lady of the last twenty-five years, Karen. 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 the company of beloved ones.
He is survived by Karen, Jordan, and the Webbs (Kevin, Gretchen, Tucker, Spencer), along with Jordan’s wife, Elizabeth. Gene’s sister Corinne, predeceased him in January of this year.
He was 83 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 of our cherished possessions. She was singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as he was taken away.
“We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”