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Gene Wilder — who died on Monday at the age of 83 — is best known for having made people laugh, with his roles in classic movies such as Young Frankenstein and See No Evil, Hear No Evil. But the comic genius was also known as a gentle person who knew how to love.
The actor and writer was married four times, but he’s probably best remembered for his relationship with the comedian Gilda Radner, whom he met while filming the 1982 movie Hanky Panky. Wilder was already two decades into his career when the director of the film, Sidney Poitier, suggested that Radner, who was 13 years younger and a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live, play the female lead.
“[Poitier] said, do you want to come with me to New York to see Gilda Radner in Lunch Hour on Broadway? I said, I don’t need to see her, I love her. I’ve wanted to write something for her for a long time,” Wilder told CNN’s Larry King in 2002. “So it’s OK by me. And Aug. 13, 1981, she came to the set and we did our first night shooting.”
Radner, who was (unhappily) married at the time, fell for the twice-divorced Wilder almost instantly.
“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,” she wrote in her 1989 memoir, It’s Always Something. “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.”
Wilder recalled that it was ever more dramatic than that, at least on her part.
“On the first night of filming near the Hudson River, she looked at me and started to cry,” Wilder said in a 2012 interview. “I asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said, ‘because I know I’m going to marry you.’ I said, ‘We’re going a little fast here.‘”
“She was just so active about everything and the way she felt — her crying, her laughing, everything. Then when the film was over and she was going to fly back home, she kissed me and then said, ‘If you ever want to get in touch with me, tell my manager Bernie Brillstein, ‘The ducks are in the pond.’ When I got back home I suddenly dropped to my knees and started weeping that she wasn’t there. So, I called Bernie and told him, ‘The ducks are in the pond.’ He said, ‘OK, I understand,’ and we were together for a long time after that.”
The couple lived together for more than two years, and finally married in September 1984 in the south of France. They made more movies together — The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986), enjoying what Wilder would refer to in 1990 as “the best years of my life, truly.”
It wasn’t always easy. Wilder wrote in his memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger (2006), that Radner could be a “clinging baby pulling at my shirtsleeve every minute.” On the other hand, he wrote, she was also “the most generous and compassionate and original person I had ever known.”
Related: Gene Wilder’s Most Memorable Roles
In 1986, Radner was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer. She was treated with chemotherapy and radiation, which worked for a while, but, two years later, the cancer returned. Through it all, Wilder took care of his wife.
“When her hair fell out, she was devastated, but eventually she made jokes about that too,” Wilder told People in 1991. “Of all the mistakes I made dealing with her illness, and I promise you I’ve made some I’m too ashamed to talk about, it was never an issue when Gilda lost her hair. Those little bean sprouts growing on top of her head were adorable, like a newborn baby. I thought it was sexy. And the more I thought that, the happier it made Gilda.”
Radner died on May 20, 1989, at just 42, leaving Wilder heartbroken. He was also determined to figure out why her cancer hadn’t been caught at an earlier stage, when she would have had a far better chance of surviving. Ovarian cancer ran in her family, and she had been going for months to see doctors who couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her.
“For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls,” Wilder explained to People. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense.’ The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die.”
After her death, Wilder spent several months researching cancer and contacting experts to figure out what went wrong, why his wife wasn’t given a simple test that would have detected immediatelya whether she had ovarian cancer. In May 1991, he testified before Congress, advocating for cancer patients, then he co-founded Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit organization with local chapters all over the United States, which provides social support for cancer patients and their caregivers. He also gave Radner’s name to the ovarian cancer research program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Wilder went on to marry again a fourth and final time in 1991, to costume designer Karen Boyer, who was by his side until his death. But, as he explained to Larry King in May 2002, a new marriage didn’t mean that he had forgotten his former wife.
“Gilda will always have a special place?” King asked.
“Always,” Wilder said.
“Karen understand that?”
“Absolutely,” Wilder replied. “She never met Gilda, so there was never a question about jealousy. She was great.”
And so was Wilder.