Movies

An homage to Gene Wilder’s moving marriage to Gilda Radner

Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner on the set of the movie "Traces," which was filmed on Beacon Hill.
John Blanding/Globe Staff/ file 1981
Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner on the set of the movie "Traces," which was filmed on Beacon Hill.

Following news of actor Gene Wilder’s death Monday, many fans were quick to reference his third marriage, to comedian and original ‘‘Saturday Night Live’’ cast member Gilda Radner, who died in 1989. Though Wilder remarried in 1991, his marriage to Radner often came up in interviews, and he remained candid about their time together.

Wilder and Radner met in 1981 while filming the Sidney Poitier film ‘‘Hanky Panky.’’ It was the first of several films in which they co-starred. Radner famously described her life after meeting Wilder as having gone ‘‘from black and white to Technicolor.’’

Psychotherapist Pain Katz, a close friend of Radner’s, told People magazine that she had seen sparks between them while visiting the ‘‘Hanky Panky’’ set. ‘‘There was a chemistry that was palpable and an electricity in the air,’’ Katz told the magazine. ‘‘They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.’’

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They married on Sept. 18, 1984. Wilder and Radner had lived together off-and-on for nearly three years before then, but Wilder initially resisted marrying Radner because he thought she was too dependent upon him. ‘‘I thought she was a baby. She couldn’t be without me, do without me,’’ he said in a 2002 interview with Larry King.

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It was a very odd turn of events that changed Wilder’s mind. In 1984, on their way to vacation in France, Radner’s dog Sparkle got sick after eating rat poison in a New York City airport. Radner urged Wilder to head to France without her. It was all he needed to hear. Wilder told King:

‘‘And she said the words that changed my life. ‘You go ahead, Darling. I know you love me. You know I love you. You’re awfully tired … go and get a rest, and I’ll be here when you get back.’ That’s what I was waiting for for 2 1/2 years. And when I got to France, I said, well, this is crazy. I should marry this girl. You know, she’s grown up. In the 2 1/2 years, she’s grown up.’’

Two years after Radner’s death in 1989, People ran a June 1991 as-told-to interview with Wilder, who had testified about Radner’s disease before a House subcommittee a month earlier. Radner’s cancer had been misdiagnosed for months and had reached an advanced stage by the time she got a proper diagnosis. Radner also had a family history of ovarian cancer. ‘‘She could be alive today if I knew then what I know,’’ Wilder said.

Wilder was frank about their relationship and what Radner went through during treatments for her illness, telling People:

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‘‘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. But still, we both had rough times. No matter how often she went in for chemo, the night before was always bad because she knew she would be so sick afterward. ‘I don’t want to go,’ she’d say in tears. Gilda was going through hell, but for a while doctors thought the treatments were working. One internist told us, ‘Do you realize how lucky you are? This could be a cure.’ He gave us hope. But he didn’t know much about advanced ovarian cancer - and neither did we.’’

After Radner’s death, Wilder helped established the cancer research program at Cedars-Sinai hospital that bears Radner’s name.

‘‘I feel relieved now, and I sleep better at night. The old story that one person can really make a difference. ... I was just lucky,’’ Wilder told the L.A. Times in 1991 about his efforts to fund more cancer research. ‘‘I think I was one spoke in a wheel that started to turn at this time. Actually Gilda was the main horsepower behind the whole thing.’’

Wilder married his fourth wife, Karen, in 1991. When he spoke to The Washington Post in 2005, the pair were living in the Connecticut house Radner left him when she died. In a 2005 CNN interview, Wilder said he met Karen while doing research for ‘‘See No Evil, Hear No Evil,’’ his 1989 comedy with Richard Pryor. ‘‘And we’re married 13 years now,’’ Wilder said. ‘‘And I’m happier than I’ve ever been in my life.’’

Anchor Aaron Brown asked Wilder if he thought that fans of his and Radner’s relationship would want him ‘‘to forever mourn, not to be happy.’’

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‘‘I think some people do,’’ Wilder said. ‘‘And I feel sorry for them, because, if you found happiness, real happiness, then it would be stupid to waste your life mourning.

‘‘And if you asked Gilda, she’d say, don’t be a jerk. You know, go out, have fun,’’ Wilder added. ‘‘Wake up and smell the coffee, you know. I wouldn’t waste my life mourning. Would I want to erase the memories I have, the good memories? No, of course, not. But I wouldn’t want to mourn for the rest of my life.’’