Two of the funniest actors of the 20th century, Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder were such a perfect match and so in love that their relationship remains one of the most iconic in Hollywood history.
Radner and Wilder met in 1981 on the Manhattan set of the Sidney Poitier-directed comedy caper Hanky Panky. She was the Emmy-winning Saturday Night Live star, he was the man who gave life to Willy Wonka, Young Frankenstein and other iconic characters. It was a casting coup, and though the film wound up being critically panned, it was clear that its two stars belonged together, on-screen and off.
The pair had chemistry from their very first meeting
Those who were on the set of Hanky Panky noticed the connection between Radner and Wilder right away.
“There was a chemistry that was palpable and an electricity in the air,” Radner’s friend Pain Katz told People years later. “They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.”
Radner herself later admitted that it was love at first sight. “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.”
Fittingly, they began like a screwball comedy — before they were romantic, they were falling naturally into the sort of gags that they made work so well in movies and on TV.
“Gilda said that I rubbed my crotch against her knee when I asked her if I could bring her some tea or coffee,” Wilder recalled in his memoir. “When she told me this story, I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ And she said, ‘No, they were your nuts.'”
Not that Radner minded — she even tried to make a move one night in their hotel room. It wasn’t easy, but Wilder rebuffed her advances, not out of any lack of attraction, but simply due to the fact that Radner was married to Saturday Night Music music director G.E. Smith.
The actress admitted that she was unhappy in the marriage even before she’d met Wilder. He provided a good sounding board — Wilder himself had already been divorced twice, most recently in 1974, and was no stranger to co-star hookups, having dated Young Frankenstein co-star Teri Garr after the movie wrapped.
While there was no off-screen hanky panky during the production of the movie, it wouldn’t be long before things officially commenced between the two stars. Radner divorced Smith in 1982, which freed her and Wilder up to pursue that instant connection.
Wilder and Radner continued their professional partnership as their romance blossomed
Their prodigious talents made them inseparable, both professionally and personally. As The New York Times wrote that year, even before their relationship was public, “All of Mr. Wilder’s future plans appear to include Miss Radner.”
Radner was 13 years younger than Wilder, and after living together for a year, the age gap began to cause some problems, as Wilder started to blanch at Radner’s seeming clinginess. She learned tennis to please Wilder, wanted to go everywhere with him and as he told Larry King years later, “I thought she was a baby. She couldn’t be without me, do without me.”
In a fittingly goofy twist for the two comedy legends, their relationship was mended and taken to the next level by a vomiting dog. While at the airport on the way to Paris, Radner’s pup Sparkle began to vomit after gobbling up rat poison. Radner needed to rush the dog to the vet but insisted that Wilder head off without her. That was eye-opening for him, as it helped Wilder realize that Radner was indeed a fully independent woman and that he was being a fool for thinking otherwise.
He returned from Paris with an engagement ring and they were married in September 1984 in the French Riviera village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence — with Sparkle at their side.
Equally fitting was the fact that they honeymooned in Rome while promoting another one of their movies, 1984’s The Woman in Red, which Wilder wrote, directed and starred in, with Radner as his co-star.
For the next few years, they barely left one another’s sides, even as they continued to travel the world. They bought a house in Connecticut, too, for when they needed to retreat from the rest of the world.
“They were constant honeymooners,” a friend told People in 1989. “It was fun and infectious to be around them. They were so in love. You were really happy for them. Both had been married before, and they were very, very happy to have found one another.”
Their attempts to have children were the first hints of the tragedy that was to come
In between their collaborations and globetrotting, Wilder and Radner attempted to have children. Twice, Radner suffered miscarriages, including one as they filmed their third movie together, Haunted Honeymoon, in London. She tried a round of IVF, as well, to no avail, and at that point, doctors told her that she was infertile. What they didn’t realize was why she was having so much trouble conceiving and carrying a child.
Around the same time, Radner began to feel faint and frequently exhausted, unable to keep her eyes open during routine social engagements. At first, doctors told her she had Epstein-Barr virus, which was responsible for mononucleosis. But fatigue soon turned to far worse symptoms — her legs began to shake uncontrollably and her stomach became bloated to the point that Radner could barely button her pants. She grew feverish. Things came in cycles, often connected to her menstruation, but still, no doctor could figure out the problem.
“In June we went to Paris, and I took her to my favorite bistro. After we ate, she started feeling uncomfortable, and the discomfort grew when we went outside walking on the street,” Wilder wrote for People in 1989. “She said she had cramps, pains in her tummy, terrible bloating. She lay down and doubled over on the curb while I hollered for a taxi to go back to the hotel.”
Physicians suggested it could be her stomach, but that didn’t check out. Some believed it was at least partly mental, connected to her depression. Pelvic cramps became unbearable, but gynecologists said they weren’t anything to worry about. “Now I had Epstein-Barr virus and mittelschmerz,” she wrote in her memoir. (Mittelschmerz is a term used for cramping around ovulation.) “Fitting diseases for the Queen of Neurosis.”
The pattern continued. She’d feel better, then be hit by crippling pain and discomfort, then be told by a doctor that her tests were all negative and that she just needed to relax — one even told her to go on antidepressants, as if that would relieve her full-body pain.
Radner finally received a correct diagnosis of stage IV ovarian cancer
Radner, whose father died of cancer, always feared that she would one day get the disease, and repeatedly asked her doctors if that was a possibility. They all waved her off… until they found a malignancy in October 1986. She had stage IV ovarian cancer and a tumor “the size of a grapefruit,” as doctors would tell Wilder.
Aggressive chemo ensued. In the hospital, with reporters desperately looking for any information possible, staff began referring to her as Lily Herman — they had wanted to name a daughter Lily, while her father, who died when she was just a teenager, was named Herman. Eventually, Wilder and Radner both got pseudonyms that made them sound like a charming old couple, Lorna and Stanley Blake. Their love continued to blossom during her difficult treatment.
Radner fought hard — nine rounds of chemo and 30 radiation treatments. But the cancer had spread, and as one doctor told Wilder early on after the diagnosis, she didn’t stand much of a chance. Wilder kept that one a secret.
Ultimately, the doctor was right. Radner protested as she was wheeled to a CAT scan, afraid sedation would knock her out and make her unable to regain consciousness. Wilder assured her everything would be okay. Radner passed three days later, on May 20, 1989, without ever waking up again. She was 42.
“When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes,” Wilder said later that year. “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 after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.”
While he didn’t get to say those last words, Wilder honored her legacy with fierce advocacy. He became an activist in the fight against ovarian cancer, testifying before Congress, raising tens of millions of dollars for research and co-founding a network of community organizations and support groups for people with the disease.