Wilder at Heart
In his first interview since battling cancer, Gene Wilder opens up about his life today and how he fulfilled his unspoken promise to Gilda Radner.
Gene Wilder is nothing like the manic, wide-eyed funnyman he played in the classic comedies “Blazing Saddles” and “Young Frankenstein.” As he sits in the living room of his Connecticut home, the actor’s quiet, measured voice is just loud enough to be heard over the classical music playing throughout the renovated, 18th-century farmhouse he calls “my greatest treasure, for the peace and tranquility that surrounds it.” The house, set back from a country road and surrounded by trees, was once home to Wilder and his late wife, Gilda Radner; he now lives there with Karen Webb, 58, a former speech pathologist, whom he married in 1991.
Radner created brilliant, oddly sympathetic characters, such as Emily Litella and Lisa Lupner [sic], that helped make “Saturday Night Live” a pop-culture phenomenon. She and Wilder were the golden couple of comedy in the 1980’s. But in 1989, Radner lost her 2 1/2 –year battle with ovarian cancer. Wilder devoted much of the next decade to raising awareness of the disease. He and Radner’s psychotherapist Joanna Bull created Gilda’s Club in 1991. “All I wanted was to fulfill an unspoken promise to her that I would try to help Joanna create a place where people who were in the same boat as she was could go and get some support and comfort,” he says. After years of making speeches and raising money, however, it was time to move on. “I was getting to be known as Mr. Cancer. I thought, ‘Get back to your life and start working again,’” he says.
Today the 67-year-old actor finds himself talking about cancer once again, but from a very different perspective. In August of 1999, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I was never sick a day in my life,” he says, “and then all of a sudden it happens to me. It was a shock—I said it must be a mistake.”
Wilder received chemotherapy and after just five sessions was told the cancer was gone. But when a doctor in California who had treated Radner encouraged him to seek further treatment, he checked in to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, where, in January of this year, he underwent stem-cell replacement. “My life was in this little bag,” Wilder says, remembering the procedure. “They poured the stem cells into my bloodstream,” he recalls.
On February 25, he left the hospital to recover at home. “I wanted to be able to walk to the mailbox and back, but my real goal was to be able to play tennis by the end of April,” he says. “I judge everything by how well I can play tennis.” Looking contented and healthy, Wilder is back on the court. “I have a men’s doubles game every Saturday morning, and I hit with Karen every afternoon.” His latest checkup showed no signs of cancer. “I feel great—a miracle has transpired.”
The best medicine Wilder has received since Radner’s death has been the happiness he’s found with Webb. The two met while he was researching his role in “See No Evil, Hear No Evil,” a comedy about a blind man (Richard Pryor) and a deaf man (Wilder). Webb, who was working at the New York League for the Hard of Hearing, helped Wilder with the script. She later enlisted his aid on a public-service video about the hard of hearing and they became friends. “Pretty soon those feelings started to become feelings of love on both sides,” Wilder says, smiling. “It was like spring, seeing the buds after a winter.”
The couple spend much of their time together painting watercolors (his self-portrait hangs over the living room fireplace), gardening, and watching old movies on television. “She is the great love of my life,” Wilder says wistfully, pausing as he gazes out the window. “I only had Gilda for a short time. Being with Gilda was like being with a shooting star. I don’t mean in terms of the shortness of her life—that, too—but just trying to hold on to her. Her spirit was always darting around. We were in love, but it was a different kind of love. It was a roller coaster and it was fun, but the marriage I have now is different. It’s very peaceful, very passionate, very satisfying. It’s difficult when two people are artists. It can work, but that’s the exception to the rule because both people have this burning [desire] to have the spotlight on them, and it doesn’t make for peaceful Sunday mornings,” he says, grinning.
Wilder feels that Radner would be happy about the life he has today. I think she’d say, “Now you’re talking business. If you hadn’t married her, I would have clunked you on the head,” he says. “Karen would have been who she would have picked out for me.” As for Gilda’s Club, “I don’t think she’d say, ‘Thank you, darling.’ I think she’d say, ‘It’s about time,’” since Radner knew so well how hopeless one can feel without a place to turn for comfort.
It’s also time, says Wilder, to resume his movie career. He’s penned, with Tom Straw, former writer and executive producer for “Cosby,” a new comedy that he hopes to star in called “Cheek to Cheek.” In it, Wilder plays a recently released mental patient who believes he’s Fred Astaire—and meets his Ginger Rogers. But don’t look for him to return to television anytime soon. “Never, never, never,” he says. “Something Wilder,” a comedy series that NBC aired for one season in 1994, was a tremendous disappointment to him. “A committee of executives [would] sit and decide what should be done each day,” he notes. “It’s just too much heartache. Life is too short to not love what you’re doing.”
But past disappointments are the last thing on his mind these days. “Things can happen that would have been upsetting before, but now I say I have everything a man could want: love, health and enough money to live on so I can just work on what I feel passionately about,” he says. “I have no complaints about anything. Gilda said in her book [It’s Always Something] having cancer doesn’t mean you have to die. She said that in 1988, and today it’s more true than ever. I’m living proof of that.”
Thanks to Amanda for typing up the article and emailing it to us.
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