Gilda Radner had always found a funny man irresistible. More than good looks, more than anything, she valued humor. “I’ve always been a sucker for a laugh,” she once confessed, “I’m the best audience.” And the man she most enjoyed watching on stage was Gene Wilder, the genius who gave life to Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein, and other iconic characters.
The chemistry they felt when they first locked eyes on the set of Hanky Panky was like no other, turning Gilda’s life, as she described it – into technicolor.
But unbeknownst to either of them, Gilda was sitting on a time bomb. Her body was crying for help, help that arrived a little too late. Wilder stuck through it all, holding her hand every step of the way. Here’s an intimate look at their love story.
Gene and Gilda’s first meeting was something straight out of a rom-com. The pair met on August 13th, 1981, on the set of Hanky Panky, where Gene spotted Gilda standing by the dock as the sun was setting behind the Hudson River. He walked over confidently to greet the SNL star and, according to Gilda, did something pretty bold.
“Gilda said that I rubbed my crotch against her knee when I asked her if I could bring her some tea or coffee,” Gene wrote in his 2006 memoir. But the actor denied it, telling her she was nuts for making that story up! To which she responded, “No, they were your nuts.”
Gilda confessed she was taken by Gene from the very first moment she looked him in the eyes. “It felt like my life went from being monochromatic to technicolor,” she reflected. Despite being married to guitarist G.E. Smith, Radner knew that she was slowly falling for Gene and that she would eventually leave Smith to be with him.
A mere two weeks after they began working together, Gilda decided to make a move on Gene. She pinned him down on his hotel room bed and said, “I have an idea for fun!” But, always the gentleman, Gene turned her down. Not because he wasn’t attracted to her, but because she was still married.
While he hadn’t met her personally before working together, Wilder confessed that he had been a huge fan of Gilda’s for the longest time. So, when the director of Hanky Panky, Sidney Poitier, suggested that Gilda play the female lead, Gene immediately agreed.
Poitier asked Gene whether he wanted to come with him to New York to see Gilda play on Broadway, to which Gene responded, “I don’t need to see her, I love her. I’ve wanted to write something for her for a long time.”
Having met Wilder, Radner’s life changed forever. And while there was no off-screen “hanky panky” during the film’s shooting, it wouldn’t take long for the two to actualize their feelings. Gilda divorced her husband in 1982, allowing her and Gene to pursue their undeniable chemistry.
Gene himself had already been divorced twice, once in 1965 and nearly a decade later in 1974. He was also no stranger to hooking up with his co-stars, having had a brief fling with his Young Frankenstein co-star, Terri Garr. But Gilda was different. Gilda was, according to Gene, “one of the bravest people he had ever met.”
Before committing himself to the relationship, Gene had his doubts, mainly because Gilda was 13 years younger than he was. “[At first] I thought she was a baby,” he confessed in an interview with Larry King. He explained that Gilda was a little clingy, because she couldn’t stand being even one second without him.
The early steps of their relationship were all over the place. But despite the mess, Gene’s feelings for Gilda were stronger than ever. “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact,” he wrote in his memoir, adding, “[But] we just loved each other, and that’s a fact [as well].”
Their ambiguous relationship was ultimately mended and taken to the next step by a surprising third party – Gilda’s dog, Sparkle. The two were supposed to fly to Paris together, when Sparkle the puppy began vomiting after swallowing rat poison. She rushed to the vet and told Wilder to jet off without her.
Seeing Radner deal with the situation in a mature manner was eye-opening, and as he stepped on the plane, he had a revelation. “This is crazy,” he thought to himself shortly after taking off, “I should marry this girl. You know, she’s grown up.”
Gene returned from France with an engagement ring, and in the fall of 1984, they married in the French Riviera with a healthy and vibrant Sparkle by their side. For the next couple of years, they barely left each other’s side. They went on to star in a second film together, 1984’s The Woman in Red.
Gilda gushed over her minor part in the movie, saying that her main motive for participating in the film was to be by Gene’s side.
Constant honeymooners, being around Gene and Gilda during their first years was fun, infectious, and quite frankly, jealousy-provoking! They were head over heels in love.
Their crafty minds made them inseparable, both professionally and personally. They worked together, traveled the world, and even bought a house in Connecticut – a place where they could retreat from showbiz. Working on their third film, Haunted Honeymoon, was one of the happiest times in Gilda’s life.
When asked what was special about her role in Haunted Honeymoon she stated: “Well, because I got to be engaged to him and I got to wear a wedding gown for forty days in a row straight. And I got to take photo weddings that I never got to take for our actual wedding!”
They were both comedy geniuses, and people were interested in knowing what was it about Gene that made Gilda laugh, and vice versa. “I love that Gene is absent-minded,” Gilda once joked in an interview. “He can direct a whole movie and keep every element and every shot in order, but he can never find his glasses.”
As for what Gene loved about his wife, Gilda responded, “I surprise him. We’re both full of surprises. The two of us have these multiple personalities all the time.” The constant flux in their personalities kept them constantly intrigued and enamored with one another.
“Gene Wilder was her prince charming,” Gilda’s manager, Bernie Brillstein, said. “He was mature. He was sweet. He loved her. And, as a bonus, he was a movie star!” And, as Gilda would say on multiple occasions, he smelled good.
Gene drew her into his world, introducing her to a string of Hollywood stars, including talented people like Mel Brooks, Anne Bancroft, and Carl Reiner. Gilda viewed the people she met through Gene as inspirational people who survived their fame without trashing their lives with deadly addictions.
Gilda had been married once before, but she hadn’t been fully invested in it, always rushing back to the stage to perform. But her marriage with Gene brought out a completely different side to her. She took on tennis, learned to love basketball for him, and even quit smoking.
Wilder was naturally pretty shy, so Gilda gradually took after him. “She was in love with Gene Wilder, and she was playing the role of married lady,” Brillstein clarified. “This was not him being selfish. This was purely her choice.”
Gilda’s attempts to get pregnant were the first hints of the tragedy that was yet to hit her. She suffered two miscarriages, including one during the shooting of Haunted Honeymoon. And after a failed round of IVF, Gilda was told by her doctors that she was infertile. What they hadn’t realized, though, was why she was having trouble conceiving in the first place.
Around the same time, Gilda complained of feeling exhausted and a little bit under the weather. She had trouble keeping her eyes open at social events and would often complain of feeling faint. Initially, doctors believed she had Epstein-Barr virus, but when her fatigue gradually worsened, it was clear she was dealing with something else.
From fatigue to uncontrollable shaking, Gilda’s body was clearly out of whack. The actress had constant cramps, and her stomach would bloat to the point where she could barely zip her pants. Still, no doctor could pinpoint exactly what was happening.
What made the situation more confusing was that her symptoms came in cycles. So, she would get these crippling cramps, but then they would go away, only to come back a while later and then calm down once more. Some doctors suggested it might have to do with her mental health.
Gilda was told multiple times that all she needed to do was “relax.” One doctor even suggested she take anti-depressants as if that would relieve her of her bodily pain. Even though her cramps were becoming unbearable, her gynecologists assured her there was nothing to worry about.
“Now I had Epstein-Barr virus AND mittelschmerz,” Gilda wrote in her memoir. “Fitting diseases for the Queen of Neurosis.” Mittelschmerz refers to cramping around the time of ovulation, so with her test results coming out negative, this was the answer doctors gave her.
On one of Gene and Gilda’s trips to Paris, Gilda’s cramps became so severe that she broke down in the middle of the street. They had just finished eating at Gene’s favorite bistro when Gilda suddenly said she couldn’t walk anymore because of the pain in her tummy.
“She lay down and doubled over on the curb while I hollered for a taxi to go back to the hotel,” Gene told People magazine in 1989. Again, physicians believed it might be connected to depression, stress, or just ordinary cramps around the time of ovulation.
Gilda’s dad had died of cancer, so she grew up with the fear that she would someday develop it herself. “I’ve been having cancer premonitions since I was twelve,” she told Rolling Stone magazine. But doctors told her not to worry, waving off her doubts with other explanations, until October 1986, when a malignancy was detected. Her prognosis suggested ovarian cancer, with a tumor that was the exact size of a full-grown grapefruit.
She underwent a hysterectomy right away and began chemo. The hospital was flooded with reporters desperately prying for any information they could get, and eventually, the staff had to start calling Gene and Gilda different names – Lorna and Stanley Blake – so that they wouldn’t be harassed. Their love continued to flourish during that difficult time.
The night before her hysterectomy, Gilda was in her hospital bed, tuning in to an independent channel that was running SNL segments from the ‘70s. She looked at herself on the screen, at her unruly, healthy hair and her lively and expressive gestures.
When the night nurse came in to check on her, she was stunned to see her patient on TV. Gilda said she understood why the nurse was so shocked. She felt that this marked the beginning of a new identity for her, from a beloved comedienne to a cancer patient. Fast forward a few months later, and Gilda had lost all her hair and no longer introduced herself as an actress but as someone who “used to be Gilda Radner.”
Radner was told she was cancer-free in September of 1988. However, three months later, it returned and more aggressively than ever. Gilda fought hard – she underwent nine rounds of chemo and 30 radiation treatments. But unfortunately, the cancer had spread to the point where her doctors knew she didn’t stand much of a chance.
They told Gene the bleak news, but he decided to keep it a secret from his wife. It was more important that he make her laugh and help take her mind off the tragic reality unfolding in front of them. He also genuinely believed she was going to pull through. “I thought that I would die before she did,” he once said in an interview. “I thought she would make it.”
Despite the uncertain situation, Gilda still had her humor. During chemo she thought of funny situations like, how to handle a situation where she’s out eating with friends, and a clump of her hair falls from her balding head, landing right on top of the salmon dijonnaise.
Gilda also took part in Santa Monica’s Wellness Community, which provides free therapy for cancer patients. Incredibly, with her upbeat spirit and lively humor, she ended up being the one doing the counseling. “I went bald because of chemotherapy,” Wellness member, Melinda Sheinkopf, noted. “Gilda made it bearable. She brought me curlers, mousse, and gel in a little bag. I laughed myself silly.”
Once she began her journey with the Wellness Community, it was like she recovered part of her identity. She told jokes, made everyone laugh, and even metamorphosed into her SNL characters at times. During group discussions, whenever a patient would tell a sad story, the rest of the group would eagerly wait for Gilda to counter it with a light and playful remark.
Every time she was able to provide, her act boosted her optimism and faith. The more meaningful she felt in those group dynamics, the more she felt like she had a real chance at beating it. It’s incredible that Gilda managed to tap into her comedic spirit even in the darkest period in her life.
SNL writer, Alan Zweibel, recalled how his good friend was never one to run away from things, “She just looked it in the eye and said, ‘C’mon — let’s fight it out,’” he noted. Gilda preached honesty and confrontation. Gene once called her “his biggest teacher.”
“She tells the truth more than I do,” Gene added. “[When I] withdraw into what Gilda calls a dot, she will lambaste me until I have the courage to get angry with her and let her have it.”
Gilda dealt with her disease in the same way. With vulnerability and courage.
Through all the exhausting treatments, Gilda tried her best to keep it together, but sometimes, according to her memoir, she took her rage out on Gene. “You can leave me if you want,” she would yell, “or are you afraid to leave someone who is dying of cancer?!”
But Gene never left. “Gene was a doll,”SNL alumna Laraine Newman said. “Gilda said he was 100% there for her. But she felt guilty about it. She felt so bad that she was taking so much from him. She wanted to be able to take care of herself.”
With things becoming desperate, Radner wrote in her memoir that she tried a macrobiotic diet and even threatened to go to Mexico for laetrile treatments. Gene would yell at her, “I don’t care if you’re dying! You’re not going to have peach pits!” But by February of 1989, as her strength faded away, the inevitable became obvious.
Gilda’s childhood friend, Janet Siskind Robertson, noted that Gilda used to tell her, “Oh, God, my mind is 100 percent. But my body is like a 4.” Robertson recalled that Gilda was always the kind of person who needed hugs and kisses when they were kids, but now, instead of human warmth, she was hooking up to IVs every night.
For most of her life, Gilda had a love-hate relationship with food. But in her battle with cancer, and, probably for the first time ever, she relied on it to nurture her. She hired someone to prepare a macrobiotic cuisine for her, but his guidance went far beyond her meals.
The hired chef became somewhat of a spiritual guide. He would wake her up at dawn to meditatively walk on the cold pavement outside the house. He would fill her cupboard with seaweed and would take her out to the garden for tai-chi sessions. And while it helped her mentally, Gene was worried it wasn’t doing much to help her physical state.
One of Gilda’s ways to try and reclaim some sense of control was asking Gene to tape her playing tennis and later installing the video on the VCR in her hospital room. She wanted it to be played for 36 hours on loop while she lay unconscious after one of her treatments.
The tape shows her swatting at tennis balls in a wild fashion, running around the court, and just goofing around. At one point, she turns to the camera and says, “Through the miracle of chemotherapy, I am able to play tennis as badly now as I did before I had cancer.” Gilda believed that this video would remind her doctors that beyond the hospital, she was a sentient being with a bright spirit.
Gilda approached the disease in the same way she viewed life – in a comprehensive manner. She read books about cancer, meditated, and wore crystals around her neck. She envisioned her cancer cells slowly melting away with each grueling chemotherapy session.
But for all her belief and discipline, Gilda still felt angry and frightened. She told Rolling Stone magazine that even a brief glimpse of a Tracey Ullman show was enough to make her bawl her eyes out in despair as she felt jealous of this newcomer’s fortune.
In the spring of 1989, Gilda was taken for a CAT scan. She protested vehemently, for fear that the sedation would knock her out to the point of no return. Gene assured her everything would turn out fine, but she was right to be afraid. Because three days after the scan, on May 20th, she passed away, at age 42.
“When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes,” Gene recalled. “She put a pretty, yellow barrette in her hair. She looked like an angel. So peaceful. She was still alive, and as she lay there, I kissed her. But then her breathing became irregular, and there were long gaps and little gasps. Two hours later, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.”
Even though he didn’t get to say those last words, Gene honored Gilda’s legacy by becoming an activist in the fight against ovarian cancer. He testified before Congress, raising millions of dollars for research, and he also founded Gilda’s Club, a support group for patients and their families.
According to doctors, Gilda’s death could have been avoided. It was diagnosed a year after the symptoms began. “If she had been diagnosed 8 or 6 months before,” Gene explained, “I’m not telling you that I know for sure, but I would bet my bottom dollar that she would be alive today.”
Gilda had a vision of her future: “I grew up in front of a television,” she once said, “And I guess I’ll grow old inside of one.” That, sadly, never happened. But the phenomenal actress did manage to leave a huge mark on the industry. In part, it was thanks to her dad, who encouraged her from a young age to go out and perform.
One of two children, Radner grew up in Detroit, and was fully devoted to her dad, Herman Radner, a huge fan of show business, and the first to applaud for Gilda whenever she would put on a show. Sadly, when she was 12 years old, he developed a brain tumor and passed away two years later. His death left Gilda wondering through the years, “Did I become an entertainer because my dad died, and I wanted to be what he loved? I don’t know.”
Still in mourning, Gilda entered her teenage years – years that brought with them other pains. Her fluctuating weight, for example. For as long as she could remember, her body was something that felt more like an inconvenience, than a vessel to explore the world with.
In her memoir, Gilda wrote that she coped with stress by overeating and purging. “I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93,” she explained. “My weight distressed my mother, and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old.”
Her detrimental eating habits followed her into adulthood, because while the stressors changed, her coping mechanisms didn’t. And even at the height of her fame, Gilda starved herself, binged, and purged. In the documentary, Love, Gilda, excerpts from her journal are read, one of which is from the summer of 1978, when she had checked herself into a hospital for eating disorders.
Only two of her friends knew of it. “It was surprising to me that at the height of her fame, she was going through so much. She was struggling inside and not telling anybody what was going on,” said the director of the documentary, Lisa D’Apolito.
“When she got cancer, something happened to her psyche,” Gene once recalled in an interview shortly after she passed away. “She became aware of the most delicate, fragile things of life, in relationships, in the tone of a voice, in a joke.”
Wilder explained that all her fears were put into perspective. And that she “learned the stuff of life that would help you lead a happy one. Except, unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.” In that same interview, Gene was asked whether he felt that Gilda was with him, to which he responded, “The essence of her, her spirit, free from pain, is with me. In that sense, I’m happier now, than when I saw her writhing in pain.”
A month before her passing, Gilda graced the cover of Life magazine, making everyone believe that the worst was now behind her. She even returned to television on a guest appearance with Garry Shandling where she playfully joked about her situation.
She received a huge round of applause as she entered the set, followed by Gary’s jokester remark, “Don’t milk the applause like that!” Gilda responded that she hadn’t been on TV for a while, and when Gary asked, “Oh yeah, what was wrong?” she casually chirped, “I had cancer!”
Gene struggled to make sense of his wife’s untimely death. How could such a colorful, lively, funny human being vanish just like that? The actor told People Magazine, “For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, this doesn’t make sense.”
He strongly believed that Gilda didn’t have to pass away at such a young age. He blamed everyone, including himself, for her death. He blamed the doctors’ ignorance for the way things ended. “She could be alive today if I knew then what I know now,” he sadly noted.
When Gilda’s hair began to fall out, she was devastated. But not for long. With the help of Gene, she was able to start cracking jokes about it! “It was never an issue [for me] when Gilda lost her hair,” he told People magazine in 1991.
“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,” he added. Eventually, Gene’s heartwarming approach to the changes Gilda was going through encouraged her to take the situation in a light manner.
In the year after her death, Gene was highly skeptical he would ever fall in love again. The actor was terrified of dates and doubted any woman would be able to move him the way Gilda did. But after a year of mourning, something clicked – he met Karen Boyer.
Karen, a speech consultant, walked into Gene’s life while doing research on the set of his 1989 film, See No Evil, Hear No Evil. “Once he [Wilder] realized he could date, he didn’t want to date anyone but Karen,” his nephew, Jordan-Walker Pearlman, revealed.
Gene married Boyer in 1991, and their marriage ended up lasting 25 loving years. They led a low-key life in their Connecticut home, where they spent their days writing, playing tennis, and painting. Karen once told ABC that the first twenty years of their marriage were the happiest ones of her life.
Gene’s fourth wife gave him an immense amount of tranquility and a genuine sense of peace he had not experienced before. He never once stopped thinking about Gilda, but he was grateful that he found the courage within him to keep living to the fullest.
Throughout her journey, Gilda always dabbled back and forth between conventional and alternative medicine. She would often turn to, as her doctors called it, “questionable immunotherapy,” only to come back to ordinary treatments more confused than before.
Chemotherapy specialist, Ezra Greenspan, would tell her, “Gilda, you can take the damn stuff. But you keep taking the chemo.” Sometimes Gilda listened; sometimes she didn’t. Ultimately, what Gilda truly wanted was to regain control over her own life.
Shortly before her death, Gilda completed her memoir titled, It’s Always Something. In her autobiography, she discusses everything, from her early childhood to her marriages to her eating disorders to her desire for a family.
One week before she died, Gilda got to see her book in all its glory – a hard-bound finished edition of her creation. Gilda’s soul shines in every testament in her book. Her courage is beyond awe-inspiring, and her book is a must for every person, woman or man, healthy or sick.