Excerpted from LIFE Gene Wilder 1933-2016: The Man Who Was Willy Wonka and So Much More. Available at retailers and on Amazon.
They had a lot in common. Clouds of unruly hair—his blond, hers dark. Comedic genius. Eccentricity laced with charm. An enduring sweetness, onstage and off.
The actor and the former Saturday Night Live star met in 1981 when they were filming the comedy Hanky Panky. On set, “there was a chemistry that was palpable, and an electricity in the air,” Radner’s friend Pam Katz told People. “They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.”
One night in Wilder’s hotel room as the two reviewed script changes, Wilder recalled in his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Radner pinned him on the bed. “I have a plan for fun!” she said. Though he found his costar “radiant,” he sent her away. After all, she was married, to SNL music director G.E. Smith.
Shortly after that encounter, wrote Wilder, Radner told him that she was unhappy in her marriage and had known even before meeting him that she would fall in love with him. He thought she was exaggerating. But she divorced Smith, and soon she and Wilder, himself twice divorced, moved in together.
Radner was rapturous. She described later in her own memoir how her life went “from black and white to Technicolor” after she met Wilder. But he was cooler toward the romance, finding Radner, who was 13 years his junior, too clingy. “I thought she was a baby,” he told Larry King in a 2002 interview. “She couldn’t be without me, do without me.” He left her after a year. But then he came back. “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact,” he wrote of their relationship’s early stages. “We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.”
In 1984, Radner’s Yorkshire terrier, Sparkle, got sick just as the couple were about to leave for a holiday in France. Wilder told King she’d urged him to go ahead without her: “I’ll be here when you get back.” After jetting off alone, he had a revelation. “I said, ‘Well, this is crazy. I should marry this girl. You know, she’s grown up.’ ” In September of that year, a month after the release of their film The Woman in Red, Wilder and Radner flew to France together and wed in a private ceremony. Sparkle was in attendance. “I wanted candlelight, she fluorescent,’’ Wilder reminisced. “We were temperamentally wrong for each other, and divinely right.”
Now the fairy tale kicked in. “They were constant honeymooners,” Joan Ransohoff, a longtime friend of Wilder’s, recalled. “It was fun and infectious to be around them, they were so in love.” Radner learned tennis so she could play with him. They tried to conceive a child, though their efforts ended in miscarriage. She bought an 18th-century home in Connecticut where the two could escape show business.
They were barely more than newly- weds when Radner began experiencing spells of extreme fatigue in early 1986. Her internist dismissed her ills as Epstein-Barr virus and told her not to worry. But she continued having similar episodes, ending up in the street doubled over in pain on a trip to Paris. Radner, whose father had died from a malignant brain tumor when she was 14, sought out several doctors, asking each of them: “It’s not cancer, is it?” All of them said that his wife was “high-strung,” Wilder recalled, and kept telling her, “Go home and relax.” Ten months after her symptoms first occurred, Radner got the diagnosis she’d feared. Surgery revealed a grapefruit-size tumor; it was Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Radiation and chemotherapy followed. But through her tears and chemo-induced pain and sickness, Radner remained a comedienne. Wilder remembered her shouting at the cancer cells in her body as her SNL character Roseanne Roseannadanna: “Hey, what are you tryin’ to do in here? Make me sick?” Throughout her struggle, “Gene was a doll,” SNL alum Laraine Newman told People. When Radner’s hair fell out, Wilder recalled, “Those little bean sprouts growing on top of her head were adorable, like a new- born baby. I thought it was sexy.”
But in his memoir, Wilder recalled moments of exasperation, when Radner would take her anger out on him and he would explode in kind: “I don’t know how to help you any more than I’m doing!”
In May 1989, Radner was at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, being wheeled off for a CT scan. Afraid she’d never regain consciousness after the procedure, she fought to get off the gurney, pleading with her husband, “Help me out of here!” Once again her fears became reality. She died three days later, at 42, with Wilder at her side. “While she was conscious, I never said good- bye,” he wrote.
For weeks after, “I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, this doesn’t make sense,” Wilder remembered. “Gilda didn’t have to die.” He came to realize that her cancer might have been caught in time to save her if doctors had given her a particular diagnostic blood test—or if they’d asked her about her family’s health history. Her grandmother, cousin, and aunt had all suffered ovarian cancer.
“All along I kept hearing Gilda saying, ‘Don’t just sit there, dummy, do something!’ ”
Two years after her death, Wilder appeared before a House subcommittee to testify about ovarian cancer, prompting a commitment of $30 million for research. He established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai, and cofounded Gilda’s Club, which has grown to be the largest cancer- support network in the country.
Radner was buried near their Connecticut property, where Wilder himself later died. “At times I thought she was a baby,” Wilder wrote two years after her death. “But I now think she is the single bravest person I’ve known.’’
Gilda on Their Romance
In It’s Always Something, Gilda Radner’s 1989 account of her battle with cancer, the comic actress describes her affection for Gene Wilder.
“LIKE IN THE romantic fairy tales I always loved, Gene Wilder and I were married by the mayor of a small village in the south of France, September 18, 1984. We had met in August of 1981, while making the movie Hanky Panky, a not-too- successful romantic adventure- comedy-thriller. I had been a fan of Gene Wilder’s for many years, but the first time I saw him in person, my heart fluttered—I was hooked. It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor. Gene was funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good.
I was bitten with love and you can tell it in the movie. The brash and feisty comedienne everyone knew from Saturday Night Live turned into this shy, demure ingenue with knocking knees. It wasn’t good for my movie career, but it changed my life.”
From It’s Always Something, by Gilda Radner. © 1989 by Gilda Radner. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.