Celebrities are people, just like the rest of us, so it should come as no surprise that their lives have an expiration date as well. And 2016 seems to be the year many of those dates expire, like when at the grocery store, rifling through the milk and trying to find the furthest date from the present, only to discover that the whole shelf is due to expire on the same day.
I haven’t met a lot of celebrities in my life. Those I have met have been brief encounters, certainly not long enough to form a lifelong bond over which to grieve upon their passing. Once in a while, though, someone famous dies, and my immediate thoughts go back to November 22, 1963, when JFK was shot and the majority of the country was reduced to tears. At last, I understand how that must have felt.
My wife often makes fun of me for my proclivity to shed a few tears, sometimes suggesting my bladder and tear ducts were switched at birth, and today was no exception.
Today, I lost my hero. Not “a” hero—my hero: Gene Wilder. So, I’ve found the gumption to tell you all why the death of a man I never met has reduced me to the emotional equivalent of rubble.
“Hold your breath, make a wish, count to three…”
Around the age of five or six, I distinctly recall hearing Gene Wilder’s voice and becoming instantly mesmerized. Nearly four decades later, I fail to recall the wish I made and whether it came true or not, but what I do remember was being captivated by Wilder’s onscreen persona, his transformation from mere human to the timeless, immortal, and fantastical Willy Wonka. I also remember wearing out the VHS tape to the point where the music and dialogue would occasionally slur like a drunken uncle at a Fourth of July BBQ, but of course, to a child, none of that mattered.
When I was alone with Wilder’s performance, I was transported in a somewhat literal sense to a land of pure imagination; in my childhood mind, it really was the land where I was free to change my world as I saw fit. That imagination sparked me to dream, to create, to write, to draw, to sculpt, and eventually, to teach others to do the same.
Gene Wilder was about as good a man as any other man ought to be, and I can think of few celebrity role models about whom I can confidently say that.
Outside the context of Willy Wonka, Wilder was well-known for his legendary love for Gilda Radner. The two were inseparable, and when seen together, I remember feeling a longing to have a love like that. When cancer took Radner from this world in 1989, I recall hearing how devastated Wilder became, completely absorbed by her loss. His pain began pushing him into a tailspin, and as he wrote for PEOPLE in 1991, “This doesn’t make sense . . . I was shouting at walls.”
Wilder, however, always the optimist, diverted his grief and anger into something more productive, becoming a champion for cancer treatment, research, and testing. His response to such terrifyingly horrid grief taught resilience, which inspired me to push through some of the biggest setbacks in my life as well.
Wilder’s ultimate act of resilience was in finding love again. Only a couple of years after Radner’s passing, he married Karen Boyer. As of his passing, they had been together for 25 years. By moving on and committing himself to another, Gene Wilder performed one of the most courageous and resilient acts after a loved one’s passing: without letting go or dishonoring her memory, Gene gave himself permission to love again.
In a final act of inspiration, according to a note released by his son, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, Wilder hid his battle with Alzheimer’s Disease from the general public.
According to Walker-Pearlman:
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.
In 1971, a young Gene Wilder, playing the unforgettable part of Willy Wonka, sang the line, “Want to change the world? There’s nothing to it…”
Then, he proved it.
Willy Wonka: It’s a Wonkavator. An elevator can only go up and down, but the Wonkavator can go sideways, and slantways, and longways, and backways…
Charlie Bucket: And frontways?
Willy Wonka: ... and squareways, and front ways, and any other ways that you can think of. It can take you to any room in the whole factory just by pressing one of these buttons. Any of these buttons. Just press a button, and *zing*! You’re off. And up until now, I’ve pressed them all … except one.