Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner: A Story of Love, Cancer, and Laughter
The Daily Beast
October 2, 2016
The comedian Gilda Radner very much wanted a cancer support center set up in her name. She also absolutely hated that this would happen because she had died of cancer.
“She looked very pretty, and she smiled and she said, ‘I guess if you compare this place to a thick hamburger on thinly sliced corn rye with a side order of ‘slaw, I would have to say this place sucks’,” Radner told her husband, the actor Gene Wilder, in a ‘visit’ after her death.
“I miss you all, and I’m proud of all of you for helping to create this great thing in my honor. I’d rather be alive and skip the fucking honor, but anyway, I just hope that people realize what a blessing it is to have a place to go to.
“When the doctors come around looking all sheepish telling you you’ve got cancer, the only thing you have to concern yourself with is your own life and how to live every minute of it for so long as you’re alive.”
A tape of Wilder recalling Radner’s words was played on Friday night, at a celebration of Wilder’s own life held at the eponymous Gilda’s Club in New York City–a prelude to speakers including Gilda’s Club co-founders Mandy Patinkin (who affectionately confessed his “unrequited love” for Radner) and Joanna Bull, alongside Radner and Wilder’s friend, the comedy writer Alan Zweibel.
In the clip, Wilder was seen addressing an audience at another event for the Club–founded in 1991 and finally opened in 1995–which is named after Radner, who died of ovarian cancer in 1989, aged 42. Wilder himself died in August, aged 83, from complications arising from Alzheimer’s disease.
The laughter of the audience greeting Wilder’s words in the clip and in the room Friday night, showed just how dearly both she and Wilder were held.
Lily Safani, the organization’s CEO, said that over the last 21 years, since Gilda’s Club opened its famous red door at 195 West Houston Street, the organization had helped hundreds of thousands of cancer patients and their loved ones navigate living with the disease.
Radner herself had attended a wellness center overseen by Bull–her cancer psychotherapist–in California when she was ill. Today there are branches of Gilda’s Cub throughout America and the world, and within New York, Gilda’s Club offshoots exist within hospitals.
Zweibel, who had helped Radner create Saturday Night Live characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, said he had loved her “as much as anybody I ever met.”
When they had met originally, for all Radner’s humor, he said, “there was something very sad about her, an unhappiness, demons. She spent lot of time alone and spent a lot of time trying to get away from herself. There were abuses, guys who went out with her because she was famous and she could support them.”
Her first marriage to guitarist G.E. Smith (between 1980 and 1982), Zweibel called “dysfunctional,” bringing her “further unhappiness.”
Radner’s life changed all for the better when she met Wilder on the set of Sidney Poitier’s Hanky Panky (1982). She was his third wife and he her second husband.
Radner went to Zweibel and his wife Robin’s apartment to tell them she had fallen in love. She wanted ‘Zweibel’–as she called him–to call Wilder. It was important both men got along. Zweibel was nervous to speak to Wilder, the great comic genius, but he called him as instructed, only for Wilder to say in a half-whisper: “I just want to hold her.”
“I think this must be a bad connection, I can’t hear you,” Zweibel told him.
But that was how Wilder spoke: he was the softest-spoken person Zweibel had ever met. “If you ever had dinner with them, the one word that was used more than any other was ‘What?'”
Wilder’s film characters may have been manic, but there was something in his eyes that was much deeper, Zweibel said. And so it was his friend “became ‘Gilda Wonka.’ Almost overnight she transformed. The alcohol was gone. The bulimia was gone. She was happy with herself. She started eating well. There was order to her life.”
“I met Gilda before any of those shitheads she met,” Patinkin revealed. He shot a Gillette deodorant commercial with her in Canada when he was 17 years old.
“I immediately fell in love with this Jewish goddess. She had a twinkle in her eye for me and I thought, ‘She’s an older woman, I like this.’ And then I couldn’t get anywhere with her. I didn’t get a kiss, I didn’t get dinner. But I always remember being smitten with her.”
Time went by, until one day Patinkin put on his dressing room door on the Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway a quote of Radner’s, or so he believed: “Enjoy the delicious ambiguity of life.” For a nervous person like Patinkin, “there is no person on earth that wanted to hear those words more than me then, and now, and tomorrow and tomorrow.”
A fellow actor told him the quote actually belonged to Joanna Bull, Radner’s cancer psychotherapist.
The next day, he bumped into film critic Joel Siegel whose wife had passed away from cancer, who told him he had just spoken to Bull about setting up a cancer center, and then Bull herself flew into New York, and soon Patinkin was involved in the setting up of Gilda’s Club with Siegel, Wilder, and Bull.
He is still struck at the serendipity of the cycle of events, and after speaking Friday night told the Daily Beast that meeting Radner was a “blessed accident. It was unrequited love, then it blossomed into a different kind of relationship.”
Patinkin told the audience he hadn’t been “that involved” in Gilda’s Club work over the years, but he was proud to be involved in it. “I just think we’re all blessed to be here, blessed to be alive, blessed to be touched by the spirit of Gilda, blessed to be touched by the spirit of Gene, and touched by all sorts of people who filled this place.”
Wilder not only took care of Radner as a devoted partner, “he had no other agenda than just loving her,” Zweibel said, recalling that Wilder would spend a whole day planning elaborate dinners, including his famous ‘Chicken Wilder,’ the recipe for which is at the end of this article.
“As crazy as his hair was each one of those hairs was in the place he wanted it to be,” said Zweibel, adding he was not “without his pretenses.” A Francophile, he would puzzle Zweibel by serving dessert before soup, claiming that was what was done in France.
Zweibel mocked Wilder’s insistence on a cheese course by, on one occasion, serving pre-wrapped slices of American cheese.
Wilder was also wise, telling Zweibel one “should live each day as if told it was our last day on earth. Prioritize what is important to you that day. Now go live the rest of your life with those priorities.”
When Radner got sick, “there was never a better caregiver if you had to be sick. Gene Wilder was your guy. He did everything for her. He waited on her hand and foot. Gilda was a handful on a good day. When she got sick, Gilda was a handful. ‘Poor Gene,’ she referred to him as.”
Seeing Wilder care for Radner so dedicatedly made Zweibel see him as an individual in his own right, rather than his pal’s husband.
Wilder encouraged Radner to laugh, and when she made her last TV appearance on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Wilder made himself absent because he wanted the focus to be on her, said Zweibel.
Wilder’s sensitivity, Zweibel thought, also extended to his choice to die so privately “because he didn’t want anyone to know Willy Wonka wasn’t feeling well.”
His legacy, and Radner’s legacy, was Gilda’s Club, Zweibel said. “Gene’s gone, but I don’t totally believe that. There is a saying that a person doesn’t die as long as somebody who knew them still remembers them. I believe that if that indeed is the case then I think Gene Wilder will live forever.”
Patinkin recalled singing at the very first fundraiser for Gilda’s Club at the home of famous adman Jerry Della Famina.
The words he sang were from the libretto of Carousel: “As long as there’s one person on Earth who remembers you, it isn’t over.”
“I say those words every day as I say the names of everyone I knew who’s moved on somewhere else every day, so I am not alone,” said Patinkin.
He said he hadn’t really known Wilder, and had only met him a couple of times–once at a Gilda’s Club event, and again on a movie set where he felt “overwhelmed by hanging out with him for a minute. I don’t remember what he said because I couldn’t hear him. But what I do remember was his overwhelming generosity, sweetness, and kindness.
“The way he looked at me left me with one memory: ‘Don’t be afraid, young man, have fun,’ which he could see was a struggle for this man.”
Patinkin said he was there to remind everyone to talk or share something with someone, “because you have no idea where it will take you.”
The world in which we were living, said Patinkin was one “where too many people are trying to scare too many people, and it’s a wonderful world, and we need to learn to love each other, embrace each other, encourage each other, and speak of happy, hopeful things instead of hateful, harmful, fearful things.”
Bull said ‘Delicious Ambiguity’ was the title of her forthcoming memoir. She said Wilder’s both malevolent and benevolent incarnation of Willy Wonka in the 1971 movie had reminded her of Vladimir Nabokov’s short story, ‘Invitation to a Beheading,’ in which a man challenges his execution, only to discover that the execution and physical world around him turn out to be illusory.
Wonka had pretended to be almost-infirm, only to show himself to be far from that. To contrast misery and freedom, Bull said, was one of Wilder’s great acting qualities, allowing him–he told her–to lead an audience to never know if he was lying or not.
Bull recalled the moment Wilder had called her to head up the effort to co-found Gilda’s Club, and how she had correspondingly “worn him out” as the face of the organization for fundraising and publicity.
Bull spoke of the weekend they flew home from Chicago from a weekend spent with Diana, Princess of Wales, who had chosen Gilda’s as the American non-profit she wanted to support.
“Those eyes of his were of the palest blue, and they fixed themselves deeply on mine as he said to me, ‘It’s time for me to retire from medicine. We can’t get any higher than this.'”
Bull accepted Wilder had done what he could, and he needed to get on with his life, which he did in Connecticut with his fourth wife Karen Boyer.
He had chosen to die “quietly and privately,” so for all those who cherish him as their favorite actor would not “lose heart,” Bull said, praising the “unselfish devotion” Wilder had bought to his work for Gilda’s.
After the event, Patinkin told the Daily Beast that Gilda’s was a symbol of the embracing of humanity, and to connect.
“Trump is about not connecting as are some others, and the world has to be the polar opposite of that,” said Patinkin. “I know lots of people are hurting, and are in trouble in this world and I have great empathy for that. I want things to change, but not under the guise of hatred and xenophobia and vilifying people.
“We have to be compassionate to all those who don’t have good healthcare, who don’t have good jobs, who got hurt. It’s not fair, and those changes need to be and but not with hate, villainy, and pushing away the soul of our country which is an immigrant and refugee base. That is who we all are. None of us would be here without it–including Trump. The energy of hope and optimism is the cure for cancer in this world, and that’s what we need to vote on in this election. Yes, I will be voting for Hillary.”
Patinkin encouraged people to support Gilda’s Clubs, other wellness centers, and also refugee centers to welcome refugees into “our hearts, homes, and neighborhoods.”
In a moving interview in People magazine after Radner’s death, Wilder had described in how Radner’s symptoms had long gone undiagnosed, starting from feeling faint on her way to a tennis game in 1986.
Zweibel recalled to the Daily Beast that Radner initially believed she had Epstein-Barr Virus. She started making and breaking dates with him, and then finally told him she didn’t have EBV.
“Great, we can go to Lakers games” he told her.
“I have ovarian cancer, Zweibel,” Radner told him. “I need you to get through this part of life.”
Zweibel’s role was to tell her jokes (Wilder’s was to “face the horror”), and he and Shandling would send Radner a VHS copy of the It’s Garry Shandling’s Show every week “like a Hallmark card.”
Wilder encouraged her to think of only positive things: on their fridge were pictures of Zweibel’s children, Martin Short’s children, and Harold Ramis’ children. She wanted to appear on Garry Shandling, but was worried people wouldn’t remember her because she’d been off the small screen for so long.
“My comedy is my only weapon against that fucker,” Radner told Zweibel. “That’s what she called cancer, she personalized it. ‘Zweibel, can you help me make cancer funny?’
In the episode they ended up filming, Zweibel recalled, Shandling asked her as she walked through the door, “Gilda, where have you been?”
“I’m sorry Garry, I haven’t been on television for a while,” she said.
“Oh yeah, what was wrong?” Shandling replied.
“Oh, I had cancer. What did you have?” Radner said.
Zweibel told the Daily Beast he and Radner had been “platonic friends” for 14 years–although, like Patinkin, he had chased her romantically at the outset only to be rebuffed.
When she was sick, Zweibel went to donate blood at the hospital. A nurse gave him a pad and pen because Radner liked to know who was donating blood. The nurse also asked Zweibel to write something nice as she was having a rough time.
Zweibel wrote, “Dear Gilda, I knew I’d get some fluid of mine into you one way or another.”
Despite feeling very ill, Radner managed to come to the naming ceremony in April 1989 of the Zweibels’ daughter, Sari. Radner died less than a month later.
Robin Zweibel told the Daily Beast that Radner’s nurse told her it had taken Radner three weeks to prepare to come to the event, including going to Tiffany’s to buy Sari’s naming gift, a silver cup.
“I believe her spirit is around,” said Zweibel, looking around the emptying room at Gilda’s Club on Friday night. “That this would be her legacy would make her heels click, as much as her comedy if not more so. Through Joanna’s wellness community, she got substance. Life became worthwhile despite everything. She would be thrilled to have a cancer support community for patients and families named in her honor.”
Radner would have also almost certainly liked the mini-hamburgers handed out on Friday night to the guests at 195 West Houston Street. And all the laughter.
Chicken Wilder — as recalled by Robin Zweibel
It’s a rustic version of braised chicken. Take two whole poulets, and lie them flat on their backs. Take butter, ‘schmear’ it over their bodies inside and out. Shake garlic and salt over them, and let them cook at 425 degrees on their backs. After 30 minutes turn them over to their sides, turning the temperature down to 350 degrees, so they’re sleeping next to or spooning each other. Turn them again for another 30 minutes, so they’re spooning each other on the other side. On the bottom of the pan, you should have root vegetables–parsnips, carrots, onions. All the juices drip into that. The chicken is amazing. It falls right off the bone.