The Life And Loves Of Gene Wilder

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Best known as Willy Wonka, Gene Wilder had a prolific career as he infused the zany comedies in which he appeared with a grounded humanity. The darker undertones of his characters were inspired by the myriad trials he endured in his personal life.

Mama’s Boy

Wilder and his mother had a close, but strained relationship as she regularly inflicted emotional pain on her child. In one incident, she demanded to know “what the f*** [he] meant by that” while forcefully shoving a bar of soap into his mouth.

Childhood Bullying

When Wilder, née Jerome Silberman was 13, his parents packed him up and sent him off to military school in Los Angeles. The time he spent there was thoroughly traumatic for the young actor, as he was bullied heavily for being the only Jewish student in the school. In addition to being the victim of regular physical violence, his roommate also often made unwanted advances on him. He wrote emotional letters to his father regarding his treatment at the school, imploring them to help.

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Painful Purple

When Wilder returned from his year in the Los Angeles boarding school, his father discovered that Wilder’s arms and chest were covered in bruises, gifts from the older boys in the school. Though Wilder’s father, who was a Milwaukee toy maker by trade, had hidden his sons turmoil from his sickly wife, he decided to immediately remove Wilder from the school after just one year when he saw just how badly the other students were treating his son.

Familial Grounding

Despite their troubled relationship, Wilder was always defensive of his mother, who suffered from a variety of ailments. In order to help ease her severe anxiety, a doctor instructed the pair to lay a brick on her chest as a grounding technique. It worked for a while, but young Gene discovered that putting pressure on her chest with his own head was far more effective, so they would often be seen sitting closely together in that intimate position.

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Medicinal Laughter

Wilder also credits his mother’s frail health as his inspiration for becoming a comedian. After she suffered a heart attack when Gene was only 8 years old, his mother’s doctor encouraged him to aid her recovery by making her laugh, but warned not to overdo it, lest she relapse. So Wilder began entertaining his mother with funny voices and silly faces in order to make her laugh, which helped to hone his early performance instincts, as well as to develop his love for the craft.

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Caught Up In A Cult

As a respite from the traumas he suffered as a child and teenager, Wilder turned to religion as a coping mechanism. But it was not the Jewish religion of his heritage that he practiced, it was an odd Russian cult, begun by a woman named Madame Blavatsky. His fellow Theosophists, to whom he was introduced by an aunt of his, would often declare Wilder to be an angel, and warned him against substance use, as it would interfere with divine messages.

The Devil Within

For almost a decade, beginning when he was 17, Wilder was completely caught up with Theosophist praying and meditation. He recalls that he would compulsively pray everywhere, public parks, buses, crowded street corners, whenever he felt the urge, constantly pleading for forgiveness. Like any effective cult, it came complete with brain washing to make Wilder and his compatriots feel guilty about their every action. Wilder was so affected by his neuroses, he even avoided women until he was 23.

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Breaking Free

His mother’s untimely death helped him begin to break free from this nearly inescapable need to pray, which Wilder would later refer to as “The Demon”. But until he started acting, he couldn’t fully tear himself away from the cult of the Theosophs. After he completed an undergraduate degree in Iowa in communication and theatre arts, he moved to England when he was awarded a place at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, in order to study acting more intensely.

The Catholic Way

Upon his return from his time in England, Wilder immediately began taking classes at the famed New York City acting school, HB Studios with Uta Hagen, which is located in the eccentric West Village neighborhood. There he met his first wife, Mary Mercier, who was an English actress. The marriage was passionless, as Wilder reported that they only had relations every six months or so. He later stated that he married her due to some misplaced feelings of obligation.

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Second Chance At Love

Shortly after his divorce from first wife, Wilder took up with a friend of his sister, Mary Joan Schultz, who already had a daughter from a previous marriage. 2 years after his split, he married Mary, and adopted her 7 year old daughter Katherine as his own. This marriage too didn’t last, and seven years later, Gene was single once more. His daughter Katie believed Wilder was cheating on her mother with his Young Frankenstein co star, Madeleine Kahn.

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Cutting The Cord

Though Wilder never went on to have any biological children of his own, he was happy to continue to serve as a father to his adopted daughter Katie, until the two became estranged when she was in her early 20s. Wilder later recalled that he always had an intense need to be the center of attention, which made it difficult for him to handle the demands of providing emotional support to even a grown child who needs parental affection.

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Another Woman

Due to Wilder’s selfishness with regards to his daughter, he recounts briefly in his memoir, Kiss Me Like A Stranger, that she eventually cut all ties with him. He continued to believe that part of their estrangement was with regards to Katie’s belief of Wilder’s affair. In 2002, Wilder sat down with Larry King who asked about Katherine Wilder, to which Gene responded, “That’s too sad a story to go into,” before adding that he “lost her awhile ago.”

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A Cutting Loss

Despite his sad split from daughter Katie, Wilder eventually managed to serve as a parental role model to several others, including his nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, and Woman in Red co-star Kelly LeBrock. Wilder’s nephew was so close to his uncle, that it was Wilder who acted as parent of the groom when Walker-Pearlman walked down the aisle. After Wilder’s death, Walker-Pearlman signed the statement he released as “Gene’s Kid”. Le Brock too penned an obituary for the late comedian.

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A Story For The Ages

While Wilder made 4 trips down the aisle in total, it was his third wife, Gilda Radner that he is most closely associated with. The pair first met in 1981 when they were filming the comedy, Hanky Panky. Radner of course was already married to the music director of Saturday Night Live, G.E. Smith. But Radner was unhappy in her marriage. In fact, she even claimed that she knew she would fall in love with Wilder before the even met.

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Tears At First Sight

In an interview in 2012, Wilder recalled his first meeting with Radner, who was 13 years his junior. He said, “On the first night of filming near the Hudson River, she looked at me and started to cry. I asked, ‘Why are you crying?’ and she said, ‘because I know I’m going to marry you.’ I said, ‘We’re going a little fast here.‘” They had not met prior to beginning the film, but Wilder was already a fan of Radner’s work on SNL.

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Landing In Oz

In her memoir, It’s Always Something, released in 1989, Gilda Radner wrote about her meeting with Wilder. “I had been a fan of Gene Wilder’s for many years, but the first time I saw him in person, my heart fluttered — I was hooked. It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor. Gene was funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good. I was bitten with love.” Though Radner was instantly smitten, it took Wilder a little longer to warm up to her.

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Common Ground

Radner and Wilder had plenty in common with one another, in addition to their shared Jewish heritage. They both also endured tumultuous childhoods. Radner struggled for years with what she deemed every form of disordered eating under the sun, which she discussed in her biography. She describes how she had bounced between 93 lbs at times and 170 lbs at other times. Details of her experience were unfortunately made public while she was in the midst of another health crisis.

A Mother’s Pressure

Gilda began struggling with her weight and body image when she was only 9 years old. She recounted in her memoirs that she would overeat to cope with stress, which upset her mother. Radner was dragged to the doctor and prescribed diet pills in order to control her binging. Instead, it catalyzed a 20 year war with food and her body image. Her college best friend, David Saltman later shared that he had been clueless about her silent struggles.

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An Instantaneous Spark

Radner’s friend and confidante, Pam Katz reported that even though they had never met before, their chemistry on set was so palpable, that the entire cast and crew knew that they were destined to be together. She told People years later that there was “an electricity in the air” and “They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.” Unfortunately for Radner, she was still locked into her unhappy union.

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A Matter Of Timing

In another early incident, as recounted in Wilder’s memoir, Kiss Me Like A Stranger, which he released in 2005, he wrote about Radner following him back to her hotel room one night, after which she pinned him down on the bed, before announcing that she “had a plan for fun!” Wilder was still uncomfortable with the coupling, as Radner was still married to someone else, so he politely asked her to leave, despite him also being quite attracted to her.

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Welcome To Splitsville

Shortly after the hotel room romp that wasn’t, Radner confided to Wilder that she was quite unhappy in her marriage. She shared with him the feeling that she had known she would love him before he even met, but Wilder was skeptical. However, after her divorce was finalized, Gene came around to Radner, and the pair suddenly appeared to be attached at the hip. Several months after that, they even decided to move in together, but the relationship was not without its speed bumps.

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Static Cling

The legendary relationship got off to a bumpy start. Radner was significantly younger than Wilder, who was quite aloof towards her in the early days. When speaking to Larry King in 2002 he recalled his feelings and actions in those early days, “I thought she was a baby. She couldn’t be without me, do without me.” Radner’s raw emotions annoyed Wilder, and after a year, he decided the pair should call it quits, but the break up didn’t last for very long.

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Rocky Road

In his memoir, Wilder summed up his early relationship with Radner as, “We didn’t get along well, and that’s a fact. We just loved each other, and that’s a fact.” Given the tension and the disagreements the pair suffered, it’s no wonder Wilder left her after a year. But despite all of that, he too couldn’t stay away, and the got back together shortly after. However, the decision to take their relationship a step further came after a very specific moment for Wilder.

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Ducks In The Pond

After filming for Hanky Panky wrapped, Radner told Wilder, “If you ever want to get in touch with me, tell my manager Bernie Brillstein, ‘The ducks are in the pond.’” It was a typical show of Radner’s zany sense of humor, but after returning home without her, Wilder recalls breaking down and weeping in his home. “So, I called Bernie and told him, ‘The ducks are in the pond.’ He said, ‘OK, I understand,’ and we were together for a long time after that.”

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A Revelation In Paris

In 1984, Wilder and Radner had been planning a French getaway for the two of them, but just before their scheduled departure, Radner’s little Yorkshire terrier, Sparkles, became ill. Radner insisted that Wilder go on ahead saying, “I’ll be here when you get back.” But Wilder was miserable on his own, even though France was one of his favorite destinations. It was there that he realized Radner had grown up and become a woman he thought he should marry.

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Provençal Fairytale

Shortly after Wilder’s last minute solo vacation, he and Radner decided to wed in the south of France. By then, they had shot a second film together, The Woman in Red, and the union was in part to celebrate the film’s the release. They were married by the mayor of a Provençal village, in what they considered to be a fairytale wedding. In Wilder’s later words, “I wanted candlelight, she fluorescent. We were temperamentally wrong for each other, and divinely right.”

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A Never Ending Honeymoon

Wilder and Radner entered the throes of marital bliss. Joan Ranshoff, an old friend of Wilder’s described the newlyweds as follows, “They were constant honeymooners. It was fun and infectious to be around them, they were so in love.” The pair bought an 18th century estate in Stamford, Connecticut as a retreat from the Hollywood spotlight, where Wilder continued to live for the rest of his life. Radner even learned to play tennis so they could play doubles together.

Gene Wilder, Dom DeLuise and Gilda Radner in a scene from the film 'Haunted Honeymoon', 1986. (Photo by Orion/Getty Images)

Missing Piece

But clouds would soon darken the couple’s marital sunshine. Both desperately wanted to have a child together, but Radner was having difficulties conceiving. She even underwent a medical procedure to widen her tubes as a way of aiding conception, but it was to no avail. When Radner did conceive, each the journey quickly ended in heartache. Wilder believed that the risky procedure may have contributed to the tragic medical problems she began to suffer only a few years later.

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The Mystery Of Health

In early January 1986, Radner found herself suddenly overcome with fatigue while she and Wilder were on their way to play tennis with some friends in Los Angeles. Then Wilder reported that it seemed as if she had taken a sleeping pill she was so out of it, but shortly after their arrival, the spell passed once she took to the tennis court. The couple thought it was odd, but nothing serious, and Radner’s fears were subsequently dismissed by her doctor.

Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder are shown in New York City in June 1982. (AP Photo)

Nothing But Routine

However, Radner continued to very suddenly get these spells of absolute fog and fatigue. Her primary care doctor diagnosed her with Epstein Barr virus, whose symptoms include chronic fatigue. Her blood work came back normal, so though the couple was worried, everything seemed to be ok. Uneasily, they accepted the doctor’s diagnosis, but the strange symptoms returned. Wilder reports even as her fatigue popped up out of nowhere, she would be fine after she napped. Wilder and Radner decided to continue to search for answers.

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A Bloated Response

The couple became more worried when they returned from Los Angeles to their Connecticut home, as Radner’s bizarre symptoms continued. Wilder recalls her becoming bloated to the extent that her clothes were no longer fitting writing, “She’d look at me and say, ‘I can’t close this button.’ And she hadn’t gained any weight.” But despite the mysterious symptoms that were popping up, no doctors believed she was suffering from anything serious, and they continuously dismissed Radner’s concerns.

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Nightmare In Paris

In an essay he penned for People magazine in 1991, Wilder wrote about how Radner’s illness was progressing, but they were still not provided with any answers. He said while they were in Paris in June of 1986, she was overcome with “cramps, pains in her tummy, terrible bloating. She lay down and doubled over on the curb while I hollered for a taxi to go back to the hotel.” But their return to the Unites States did not yield any relief for Radner.

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A Woman’s Hysteria

Wilder continued to share Radner’s experience with People magazine, explaining how after they got back to the United States, Radner began experiencing what she called “nervous legs”, legs that wouldn’t stop moving until she went to sleep. They began seeing specialists, but her pelvic exam, and GI exam all came back normal. They doctors said to Wilder and Radner, “She’s a very nervous, emotional girl. She’s got to relax.” It almost seemed like they believed her pain was imagined.

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An Answer At Last

It wasn’t until October of 1986, 10 months after the onset of Radner’s first symptoms, that the couple got a clear medical answer. Despite the numerous doctors they saw and the barrage of tests she underwent, it wasn’t until after she was hospitalized that doctors discovered “a malignancy”. When she finally underwent an operation, the doctor told Wilder they’d removed a grapefruit sized tumor from her ovary. Radner was diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, and her prospects were low, but Wilder kept optimistic.

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By Her Side

Wilder became Radner’s bedrock as she began treatments. Despite how scared she was, Wilder says Radner continued to keep her emotional strength up by joking about her illness, even going so far as to include a bit about it on Saturday Night Live. Dressed as her character, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Wilder remembers her shouting at herself, “Hey, what are you tryin’ to do in here? Make me sick?” Her humor helped her get through most of her fears, but some even Wilder could not allay.

Head Of Sprouts

Wilder was utterly devoted to Radner in herself, and was still hopelessly in love with her. Throughout her radiation and chemo treatments, he recalled still finding her attractive after she lost her hair. “Those little bean sprouts growing on top of her head were adorable, like a newborn baby,” Wilder said. But even as his support reassured Radner most days, there were still times when Wilder didn’t know what else to do for her, and she would become frustrated.

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Time To Breathe

The couple received a brief respite when Radner’s cancer went into remission for several years, giving them more time to enjoy each other’s company. During that time, Wilder began working on one of his last film roles, See No Evil, Hear No Evil, his final collaboration with Richard Pryor, where Wilder played a deaf man to Pryor’s blind man. But before the film was released, Radner’s cancer had returned. Wilder’s desire to care for her ultimately pulled him away from Hollywood.

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Raising Awareness

Gilda Radner passed away on May 20, 1989, a day Wilder had refused to believe would come so soon, though he recalls Radner intuiting it in her final weeks. In response to her doctor’s incompetence, Wilder became a passionate advocate of ovarian cancer awareness, ardently believing that Gilda would have survived given adequate care. He even testified before Congress in 1991 to spur them into funding research. He also built the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center in LA at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, and established a support network called Gilda’s Club.

The Golden Years

Though Gene Wilder did find some happiness after he lost Gilda, marrying Karen Webb Boyer, his 4th wife, in 1991, Gilda Radner never left his heart. In 2002, he sat down with Larry King for an interview and spoke briefly about their romance in response to King’s prompting. King asked Wilder, ““Gilda will always have a special place?” “Always,” Wilder replied. “Karen understands that?” King continued.“Absolutely,” Wilder added. “She never met Gilda, so there was never a question about jealousy. She was great.”

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Invisible Illness

In his final years, Gene Wilder was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease, to which he succumbed last year. After his death, his family shared with the press that he specifically wanted to keep a low profile as the illness took its toll on his health because he was keenly aware that so many children still associated him with Willy Wonka. Wilder preferred to stay out of the spotlight, so as not to scare or upset them if he were to be seen looking so frail.

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