June 11, 2013 at 10:50 AM ET
With his wild, curly hair and wide blue eyes, Gene Wilder can't help but leave an indelible impression. And the comedian, who turns 80 today, has been so vibrant in his various roles -- on stage and screen, as a writer, director and singer -- that it's easy to forget that he hasn't appeared in a TV show or film for over 10 years. Yet his characters and movies -- as well as personal life struggles -- remain some of the industry's most unforgettable.
Born Jerome Silberman, Wilder was in his 30s by the time he broke through, thanks to some classic pairings: First in Mel Brooks-written comedies "The Producers" (1968) "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and "Young Frankenstein" (1974), then as half of a yin-yang comedy duo with Richard Pryor in films like "Silver Streak" (1976) and "Stir Crazy" (1980).
Yet one of his most beloved characters -- the creation of the warm-hearted but slightly mad Willy Wonka in 1971's "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" is still considered one of his most iconic. (And even today inspires ongoing debate about who made the most wonderful Wonka -- Wilder or Johnny Depp.)
But Wilder's real-life relationship with "Saturday Night Live" comedienne Gilda Radner -- they wed in 1984 (his third marriage) in many ways defines him most clearly. The couple made three movies together, including "The Woman in Red" and "Haunted Honeymoon" (both of which he directed) and were together until her death from ovarian cancer in 1989, after which he helped found "Gilda's Club" and the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center. (Wilder himself was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 1999 but said it was in remission in 2005.)
He spent the 1990s turning more toward television, with his own short-lived series ("Something Wilder") and appearances on "Will & Grace," but when Alec Baldwin interviewed him in 2008 for Turner Classic Movies, he said he was retiring from acting. Instead, he turned to books, spinning out memoirs, a story collection and novels. His latest, "Something to Remember You By," was published in April.
As Wilder told Baldwin, "(My father) always used to say to me when I was growing up, 'I know you want to act, I know you're wonderful, you're a natural. But don't put all your eggs in one basket.... And afterwards, when he saw a limousine come to pick me up in Milwaukee to take me to Chicago -- with him -- to be interviewed and do publicity for 'Willy Wonka,' on the ride home he was very quiet and he took my hand ... and he said, 'It's a good thing you put all your eggs in one basket.'"
It sure was. Happy birthday, Gene Wilder!