Their love story moved a generation.
It’s just been announced that Gene Wilder passed away, and, when I heard the news, it’s telling that my first reaction was “Oh, he gets to be with Gilda now.”
I was raised in an era when celebrity couples weren’t such an everyday occurrence as they are now. Yes, there had been Tracy and Hepburn and Bogey and Bacall long before Kim and Kayne, but, when I was a kid, if you asked me if I knew two movie stars who were really in love, my answer would’ve been “Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner.”
There was just something… luminous about the way they looked at each other. Like they were content on a level that the rest of us could only imagine, like characters in a love story.
They met as movie stars do — on a movie set. Gene Wilder was already a comedy legend, with movies like Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein under his belt. Gilda Radner was a rising TV star, thanks to her star-making turn as an original cast member of Saturday Night Live. They were both cast as the leads in Sidney Poitier’s 1982 comedy Hanky Panky.
This is how Gene described their first meeting to Larry King: “[Sidney Poitier asked me,] 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. So it's OK by me. And August 13, 1981, she came to the set and we did our first night shooting.”
Gilda later described that meeting as “love at first sight.”
Radner was married to Saturday Night Live’s guitarist G.E. Smith at the time, so the couple stayed in touch and, after Gilda got divorced in 1982 (Wilder had been previously married too), they moved in together.
They spent their first wedding anniversary in London, while filming Haunted Honeymoon, and it was during that production that Gilda’s health started to fade. She was listless and tired, totally exhausted. According to Gene, “For 10 months, she went undiagnosed. And then finally she was diagnosed with Stage IV ovarian cancer.”
Gene told Larry King, “I had one brave contribution to make to Gilda. I was so incredibly dumb, it was hard to believe, because I thought she was going to pull through until three weeks before she died. Two-and- three-quarters years, I thought that she would make it. And I would say that to her, and she said really? And I said I'll find — right now, I'll exchange life spans with you. The irony is that I meant it. I thought that she'd pull through and that she would live longer than I would.”
Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse and Gilda died on May 20, 1989.
I was 12 years old when she passed, and I can remember hearing my mother crying in the other room when the news was announced.
Dom DeLuise was quoted as saying, “When she passed away, no matter what you said to Gene, his face didn't move. He was just stunned and numb."
There was just something so joyful about Gene and Gilda. Maybe it was their mutually wild hair, maybe it was their infectious smiles. But they just seemed so suited to each other — the loveliest couple you could imagine.
They felt right.
And it’s also notable that Gilda’s death was the inspiration for sending decades more of love and compassion into the world.
After she died, Wilder and several of Radner’s close friends founded Gilda’s Club in 1995, an organization that “creates welcoming communities of free support for everyone living with cancer — men, women, teens and children — along with their families and friends.” There are over 20 Gilda’s Clubs around the United States, helping provide comfort to families struggling with cancer.
The bond between Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner persisted beyond her death, which was a beautiful thing to behold.
Yes, Gene eventually remarried and found love again, but it doesn’t diminish his relationship with Gilda.
They were the perfect couple of a perfect time and place. They were a couple of laughter and smiles. A couple of grace and humility. And the public adored them for showing us what love could look like.
I’m terribly sorry that Gene Wilder has died, but, hopefully, his life will eventually bring as much solace and comfort to the world as Gilda’s did.
They will both be missed.