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Gene and Gilda

The following was taken from TV Guide (September 4, 1993), and was written by Frank Swertlow.

Four years after Gilda Radner's death, the happy memories she created still come drifting back: There were the zany characters of Saturday Night Live like lisping Baba Wawa, loudmouthed Roseanne Roseannadana, and confused Emily Litella. Everything about Gilda--the quick wit, the big grin--worked to make you smile. Just looking at her with comedian-husband Gene Wilder made you wonder how they got through breakfast without convulsions of laughter.

Wilder and Radner married in 1984 after she reportedly told him: "Wake up and smell the coffee … I'm the person you need." They made movies together and he described her as "one of the most brilliant female comics in the history of television." But now Wilder's memories of the ever-cheerful Radner are tinged with the pain of the 21/2 years she battled ovarian cancer.

"I had one great blessing--I was so dumb," he says now. "I believed even three weeks before she died she would make it. She never saw my fear. I told her she would live longer than me. And she would say, 'really, really.' If I had known, I don't know if I could have acted well enough. I am so grateful I was so naive."

The naiveté--and hope--ended when Radner died , just shy of her 43rd birthday. Intent on giving some meaning to her death, Wilder spoke out to warn other women about ovarian cancer, and to urge doctors to look for the familial links that could lead to earlier diagnosis. "Gilda didn't have to die," he tearfully told a Congressional subcommittee. He was convinced that his wife's life might have been saved if the doctors "asked a few more questions about her mother, her aunt, her grandmother, her cousins."

Remarried now, Wilder is still haunted by the desolation that came with the disease. He remembers Radner's lonely tears--and the anguish that occurred when they believed that she had been cured and discovered they were wrong. "After all the chemotherapy and the radiation, we went back East and then she had three blood tests and it had come back," Wilder says. "She just wept, and there was no place to go where she could scream and laugh and be with people in the same boat."

Now Wilder is ready to bring some Gilda-inspired cheer to others who are suffering. On October 17, 1993 he opened Gilda's Club in New York, a psychological and social support facility for cancer patients and their families. Big stars--including some who have had personal brushes with cancer-are giving support: Jance Curtin, who costarred with Radner on SNL, Mandy Patinkin, Mel Brooks, Joel Siegel, Anne Bancroft, John Candy, Linda Ellerbee, Kathie Lee Gifford, Ivan Lendl, and Rick Moranis. Radner's one-time therapist Joanna Bull is executive director of the club, which received a $1-million grant from Vanity Fair Lingerie.

"The doors are open to anyone with cancer, free of charge: husbands, wives, lovers, sons and daughters, aunts and uncles," Wilder says. "We're going to make it a family -oriented place. It is not a medical facility, although there will be a professional psychotherapist who can meet people individually or in groups."

It is also a place where cancer patients can feel understood--and not isolated. Bull remembers that during Radner's battle with the disease, she "felt hopeless, helpless, out of control. She felt that she'd lost her humor."

When Radner finally found a place in Santa Monica where she could discuss her illness, Wilder remembers that her spirits immediately lifted. She could laugh and cry and discuss the intimate details of her life as it was unfolding.

"I could see that she was really cooking when she had 17 other people with cancer in the room to talk to," he recalls. "She came home shouting, 'Oh honey, I felt so bad that we haven't slept together but they said I am not alone. They don't want their husbands to touch them, too. I am not a freak.'"

Wilder admits that he could have used a facility like Gilda's Club. "I was going nuts," he says. Adds Bull: "Gene felt it was terrible to stand by and see someone you love feel she was in a hopeless situation."

Gilda's Club will include a playroom for children to use while a parent goes for counseling. "They can find out that their mommy or daddy isn't a freak of nature, " Wilder says.

There will be areas for meditation and therapy and even dancing. Most touching, perhaps, is the "It's Always Something Room," named for Roseanne Rosennadana's favorite phrase and intended to be a refuge for private relaxation and reflection.

For a time, Gene Wilder and Gilda Radner seemed to be a magical couple, and with the establishment of Gilda's Club, Wilder hopes some of that magic will live on. Radner's struggle still affects him deeply. "I learned a lot from it," he says today. "There is no denying trying to be happy. Too often we get trapped up in a narrow vision of life. I make it my business to be happy whether I'm alive for another day or week or 30 or 40 years. No time is wasted on all the petty things. She gave me the gift of life."


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