Veteran actor, comedian, and writer Gene Wilder passed away this weekend after battling Alzheimer’s — unbeknownst to any of us. His family said in a statement that Wilder hadn’t wanted the public to know he had the disease; mostly that he didn’t want children to know. After all these years, he’s still immortalized for many, kiddos and grown-ups alike, for his titular role in Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Wilder was, even in recent years, frequently recognized by tots passing him by on the street. How could he not be with his striking corn-flower blue eyes that were a little wild, his electro-frizzy hair, his somewhat sad, worried face?
Wilder hadn’t wanted to frighten, or disappoint, “the countless young children that would smile or call out to him, ‘There’s Willy Wonka’” — which to me anyway, seems exactly like the kind of thing I’d expect Gene Wilder to do. Just what he always did, what he made a life, a career out of doing: tucking away his own grief, his own world of sadness so that he could focus on making people laugh.
Perhaps the only time in Wilder’s life where his grief bled through, where it permeated every aspect of his life and turned the spotlight away from comedy and onto the oftentimes devastating consequence of falling in love, was after the death of his third wife, beloved Saturday Night Live comedian Gilda Radner. Wilder met Radner on the set of a film aptly titled Hanky Panky, (in her memoir entitled It’s Always Something, she wrote that he was “Funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good.”) They married a few years later in the south of France (“Because Gene loved France,”).
Radner was a comedian who (not unlike Wilder, not unlike the late Robin Williams) had intense internal struggles and deep grief that informed her talent for making people laugh; for making them happy. As a child and teenager, Radner struggled with her weight and had “every possible eating disorder from time [she] was nine-years-old.” When she was 12, her father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor that caused him to slowly deteriorate over the course of the next two years before he died, during which time he was completely bed-ridden and could not speak.
As she went off to college and eventually got her shot at stardom as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, the details of her eating disorder began to emerge via stories from castmates, and Lynn Redgrave (who was bulimic as well) admitted that the two of them had discussed their disordered eating while sitting next to one another on a plane; reportedly the first time Radner had ever owned up about her condition to anyone.
Flash forward to 1985. She was 38-years-old and had been married to Wilder for a year. They wanted to have children, but she was struggling to conceive. In fact, she’d been struggling to conceive for at least a year before they were married when she’d stopped using birth control entirely.
She had a procedure to assess the function of her fallopian tubes, which showed that she was infertile, and may have been a harbinger of what was to come. In her memoir, she recalls the look on the nurse’s face as they ran the test, thinking it odd that she looked so sullen: “What could be lovelier than Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder having a baby?” she wrote, “The hair alone would make people squeal with delight.”
She was offered the possibility of in vitro fertilization, an option that Wilder supported so long as the trial of it didn’t impact their marriage negatively, saying that “A baby was best off coming into the world to two people who were happy together.”
In recalling the consideration of in vitro, she talks about having an illegal abortion when she was 19-years-old (“that probably influenced the messy state of my reproductive organs”) an experience that returned to her as she tried to come to terms with the fact that she might never have a baby at all.
“For me, the issue became less whether I wanted a baby or not and more my inability to accept not being able to have one.”
She did a lot of research about IVF. She and Wilder went through the slog of preparation that many a couple does when they’re trying to conceive this way: the ultrasounds, the laparoscopies, the coming-into-a-cup. She describes the sequence in her memoir and one can’t help but feel incredibly worried by the image of Gene Wilder, with his big, sad eyes, trying to ejaculate into a cup next to a stack of Playboys in some nondescript, sterile closet-like hospital room at UCLA. When they had completed the entire cycle of IVF — and no pregnancy resulted — it was Wilder who said: “Never again.”
So, she instead elected to have her tubes opened surgically — a fairly risky procedure in the mid-80s, when this type of “microsurgical technology” was still relatively new. Once her tubes were opened, she was tasked with figuring out when she was ovulating so that they could be sure to have sex in that window to optimize her likelihood of conceiving. She got those little at-home ovulation kits (“Where you are the scientist,” she wrote) but didn’t tell Wilder. She recalled the fervor of one morning when she couldn’t get the cap off the test vial. Desperate, she raced into the bedroom, poked a still fast-asleep Wilder, and said, “Don’t ask me any questions, just take the lid off this vial.” He did, and he never asked her about it — having done so while still fast asleep.
You could say a lot of things about Gene Wilder, but you can’t say that he didn’t love the devil out of Gilda Radner.
“My ovaries became the center of my universe,” she wrote, and it’s with an incredible sense of irony that we can think about this statement now. We know that, within five years from that image of exhaustedly buoyant Radner skidding to that bedside with a little ovulation kit, she would be dead from ovarian cancer. As many nights as she lay awake with anxiety about not being able to have a baby, that she worried about her “closed tubes” or the painful cycle of IVF, of whether or not her anxiety was driving her husband up the wall — she never would have suspected those little almond-sized organs, which she was trying to nurture into submission, would take her life.
It was during the filming of the third (and final) film she did with Wilder, in England, that she began experiencing some troubling symptoms: extreme fatigue, bloating, leg weakness. She’d also missed a period. Could it be that, because they had stopped focusing on having a baby and started focusing on the film, that she’d somehow gotten pregnant? She sent her dresser to the local pharmacy to get a couple of pregnancy tests. One, which she took right away (positive) and one that she would take home to do when she was with Wilder. That one was positive, too, and Wilder put the little blue stick in his pocket as they walked through their neighborhood.
“The weather was warm and we held on to each other and sang quietly while our brains darted through this new phase of our life. We like to sing the song “Ohio” in harmony when we are happy, mainly because I’ve got the harmony down for the whole song except for one line near the end. I never get it right and that always makes us laugh.”
A few weeks later, as she continued to feel not-so-great but chalking it up to early pregnancy, she began to bleed heavily on set. She assumed she was having a miscarriage and called her doctor, who told her to lie down and rest. She was supposed to shoot a scene in the afternoon where she would mostly be sitting. She told Wilder what was happening and they agreed that she might as well stay onset; they hadn’t told hardly a soul that she’d been pregnant, and they both agreed they needed work, and each other, to get through it.
She bled for two weeks, during which time she recalled also getting a rather terrible flu that had been going around the set. By the time filming wrapped up and they returned to Los Angeles, she was feeling run down but assumed that everything she’d been through was just catching up with her.
One otherwise ordinary Sunday in 1986, she and Wilder were headed to a friend’s to play tennis when she suddenly fell asleep in the car, apropos of nothing. She wrote that it was like “being hypnotized into this deep sleep” and “like a fog rolling in over my brain.”
Wilder recalled the event too — the day in his mind when everything about their life began to unravel: “She said, ‘’I can’t keep my eyes open. I think I’m going to fall asleep.’’ She lay back and looked like she had taken a sleeping pill.”
By the time they arrived for their tennis match, she’d rallied. But she still made a doctor’s appointment. “There was nothing wrong with me,” she recalled them telling her — except that she had some elevated Epstein-Barr virus antibodies, as many people do. Epstein-Barr is the virus that causes mononucleosis, among other fairly common conditions. In the mid-to-late 1980s, Epstein-Barr was also a popular “garbage bag” diagnosis for all kinds of fatigue-related symptoms.
Her internist also suggested that her symptoms could be due to depression. He patted her on the back and told her to relax.
A week or so later, she began running a low-grade fever. She called her doctor who told her not to worry about it. The “weird life” as she called it continued. She would be fine for maybe ten days and then, “seemingly around my menstrual cycle, I would go into this severe fatigue and run a low-grade fever, then I would be okay again.”
She recalled trying to do as much as possible on the days she felt well because she knew that there would be a few days where she’d hardly be able to get out of bed. Then, just when she thought she’d spotted a pattern, it started to strike her seemingly of its own volition. By this time, if she hadn’t been before, she certainly was depressed about her health.
And who wouldn’t be?
But she did wonder what came first: the illness or the depression? Her doctor continued to suggest that she was just “emotional” and prone to worry — that the events of the preceding years, paired with her turning 40, were causing her to become depressed which, in his mind, was, in turn, causing her cache of symptoms.
That spring, she began having pelvic cramping on top of everything else. She went to her gynecologist who assured her that nothing was wrong; it was just “mittelschmerz”, the sensation some women can feel at the time of ovulation. “Now I had Epstein-Barr virus and mittelschmerz,” she wrote, “Fitting diseases for the Queen of Neurosis.”
She and Wilder made their annual trip to the south of France, where they had married, and she noticed that each afternoon she’d need to take a nap. She’d started taking a heap of vitamins, hoping to bolster her immune system, but to no avail. She was dizzy, tired, uncomfortable. She kept running low-grade fevers. Their last night in Paris she got so sick after dinner that Wilder had to call a cab to get them back to their hotel room. She chalked it up to nerves about flying home.
Over the next few months, the grinding fatigue continued as well as a seemingly never-ending plague of stomach and bowel problems. Her doctor said she was probably taking too many vitamins. She saw another doctor who thought her stomach problems were — surprise! — the result of her anxiety and depression.
Then she got a new symptom: aching, gnawing leg pain that started in her upper thighs and spread into her already weak legs. It began slowly, like a dripping, and then progressively got worse and worse. Her doctors told her to take a Tylenol.
Though at this point, there was one doctor who thought doing a pelvic sonogram would be useful, just to “rule out” anything serious. Like cancer. Her ovaries “weren’t exactly in the place where they were supposed to be,” but the doctor told her that wasn’t really a cause for concern. There was some “congestion” in her pelvis, but that didn’t seem too serious either.
“Everything is fine,” they told her, “There is nothing to worry about.”
She took Tylenol. She played tennis. For a while, she began to feel a little better. She wasn’t quite so tired, she wasn’t quite so worn down. But the leg pain got worse, and her doctor gave her a high-dose of anti-inflammatory medication which caused her to have terrible nausea and vomiting. So her doctor gave her medication to reduce the acid in her stomach so that she could take the anti-inflammatory medication.
All of her tests were normal.
But she began to notice a gauntness in her face, and she seemed to be losing weight in her arms. She was losing weight everywhere, and too much. For a woman who had struggled with her weight, who had been bulimic even, to notice that she was getting too thin was quite a realization. The pain, the illness — it couldn’t have been in her head. Or could chronic pain, she wondered, make you lose weight?
She went to see a doctor in Boston who gave her an antidepressant. When she didn’t seem immediately placated, he asked her what she was so afraid of. “I am afraid that it is cancer,” she told him.
He told her to just keep having her blood drawn and to stay in touch with her doctor “so that you can set your mind at ease.”
She went home. She saw a new gynecologist. He did a pelvic exam and told her that she had some scar tissue, but everything else was normal. He told her that she could keep trying for a baby if she wanted to.
She was sick, exhausted, on all kinds of medication — and frankly, recalled having no interest in sex whatsoever, given how lousy she felt every day, and how much pain she was in.
She tried acupuncture. Holistic medicine. She took supplements.
Still, the pain in her legs kept her up at night. She bloated so severely that she really did look pregnant — which must have been such a fantastically cruel reminder of what she had not been able to have.
Her doctor told her she was literally “full of shit” and gave her laxatives. She went back to her holistic practitioner and had a colonic. “I will never forget looking past my swollen stomach at the tube, and the only thing that floated by was a bean sprout,” she wrote, “Just a single bean sprout went by.”
October 20, 1986. Radner’s doctor calls with the results of her recent blood tests. Her liver function, he says, was irregular.
She asked him what that meant.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said, but he wanted her to come in anyway.
That night she didn’t sleep — “Gene held me, talked to me and finally got me to take something to sleep,” she wrote — and how many nights over the preceding months that she had been so sick had that scene played out in just the same way?
She was checked into the hospital the next day for more tests. “We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Wilder told her as they sat in her hospital room, waiting. Exhausted, both of them.
A few days of tests came and went. By Friday, a doctor came into her hospital room where she and Wilder had been chatting, just watching television and waiting.
They told her they had found a malignancy. Cancer.
“Gilda cried,” Wilder recalled, “but then she turned to me and said, ‘’Thank God, finally someone believes me!’’
On Sunday morning, they operated.
When she woke up in recovery, Wilder was at her side. “They got it all, everything they could see,” he said. And he held her.
She got a fever. Then she got pneumonia. She was in intensive care for 5 long days. While she remembered little of what happened, Wilder later filled her in. Journalists were hounding the hospital trying to find out what had happened. He had to change her name on all the medical records, (“Lily Herman” was what he came up with — Lily, for what they had dreamt of naming a daughter, and Herman, for her father’s name).
Hospital staff eventually changed both of their names to “Lorna and Stanley Blake”, which became something of an inside joke between them and the nurses that cared for Radner over the next few weeks.
It was also during this time that she realized — after the surgery was already over — that she had been given a complete hysterectomy.
She would never have a baby.
She remained in the hospital and started chemotherapy. Incidentally, this brought about one of my favorite passages from her memoir, where she talks about how a nurse tried to calm her down and help her sleep at night without too many drugs:
Radner and Wilder, two people who had known such deep pain that they could somehow transmute it into bringing joy into other’s lives, lay entangled in a hospital bed night after night, trying to find the tiniest bit of joy in the situation they’d found themselves in. In one another.
“I would cry as easily as I’d laugh,” Radner wrote of that time, and she spent a good deal of her days trying to come up with ways to make the nurses laugh, the doctors, her family, and friends — and her husband.
Radner’s doctor told her she was lucky. There could be a cure. The chemo might mean her cancer would never come back. But the reality was no one, not Wilder, not Radner, not the doctors who misdiagnosed her, the doctors who treated her (kindly and unkindly) knew enough about ovarian cancer to help her. Wilder points this out in the now recirculating op-ed for PEOPLE where he talks about why he opened up about Radner’s struggle after her death.
For weeks after Gilda died, I was shouting at the walls. I kept thinking to myself, ‘’This doesn’t make sense.’’ The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die. But I was ignorant, Gilda was ignorant — the doctors were ignorant.
With Wilder’s passing this week, we lost not just a phenomenal comedian, a beloved actor, and artist, but a champion of a women’s health issue that is simply not talked about enough. After Radner’s death, when she was just 42-years-old, Wilder continued to advocate in her honor. He found out everything he could about ovarian cancer. He asked about how he could help — and then he used his fame, his resources, to do exactly that.
Wilder remarried and, when he died, had been happily married for 25 years. While he is so often remembered as being paired off with Gilda Radner, he was only married to her for 5 years. It’s easy to get wrapped up in their quirky, comical love affair — which was, at its best and brightest, a tale of two probably near insufferable goofs who fell in love and did something about it.
But it was the 25 years after Radner’s death when Wilder sought to change the world for the better as a tribute to a woman he once loved, whose life was cut tragically short, that is the true testament to not just the love they had, but to the kind of man Wilder was. The legacy of not just laughs, but love, that he’ll leave behind.
“I wanted a perfect ending,” Radner wrote toward the end of her life, “Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment, and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”
Abby Norman is a science writer & the author of ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN. She lives in New England with her dog, Whimsy.