Off Screen, Gene Wilder Had a Heart of Gold

Gene Wilder spent his post-acting years dedicating his life to cancer research in honor of his late wife Gilda Radner.

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Complex Original

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Gene Wilder spent most of his life making people laugh. On Monday, Aug. 29., the beloved comedian best known for portraying the titular character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, passed away at 83 years old. Gene Wilder was more than just Willy Wonka—with unforgettable roles in Blazing SaddlesYoung FrankensteinThe Producers, and many more—but he was also more than just an on-screen maniac who could incite uproarious laughter with impeccably timed delivery and wild exclamations. If you grew up watching Wilder on the screen, then you know how he could make the cinematic experience a true delight. He frequently played the slightly insane, and more often than not the wrongly accused (in five films, actually), but always with lightness and heart that gave humanity to his acting work. He could equally thrive on overdrawn silences as he could in the climactic moments he was best known for. Whatever he did, Gene Wilder made the moviegoing experience better. 

But Wilder was also concerned with making life better, too. In 1984, Wilder married fellow comedic legend and one of Saturday Night Live's original members, Gilda Radner, a marriage that would sadly end just five years later when Radner passed away due to ovarian cancer. Her death would coincide with Wilder's retirement from acting, but he never really stopped giving; he just spent the last 25 years doing it off screen. Two years after Radner's passing, Wilder set up Gilda's Club, a support group for cancer patients and their loved ones, in her honor, and helped raise money for a center on West Houston street. In 1991, Wilder told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to raise awareness for early detection, specifically testing for CA 125, which indicates ovarian disease in the blood. Wilder also gave Radner's name to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center's cancer research program and set up fundraisers to donate money, to help both prevention and diagnosis of the disease. Radner herself was misdiagnosed, and doctors failed to indicate ovarian disease until 10 months after her first exam.

"The fact is, Gilda didn’t have to die. But I was ignorant, Gilda was ignorant, the doctors were ignorant," Wilder wrote. "We were all so ignorant about ovarian cancer. That’s one of the reasons I went to Congress to testify. I don’t like giving speeches. It makes me nervous. But I kept hearing Gilda shouting, 'It’s too late for me. Don’t let it happen to anyone else.'"

Wilder was able to find peace with doing good work. After setting up the foundation, he told the L.A. Times, "I feel relieved now, and I sleep better at night. The old story that one person can really make a difference... I was just lucky; I think I was one spoke in a wheel that started to turn at this time. Actually Gilda was the main horsepower behind the whole thing." A few years later, in 1998, Wilder would go on to co-write Gilda's Disease with oncologist Steven Piver, further spreading awareness and sharing personal anecdotes of their brief marital years, and what it was like for Radner to live with the illness.

Then Wilder himself got sick. In 1989, the same year as Radner's death, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and was hospitalized in 1999. In 2002, he told Larry King that he got chemotherapy and radiation and that the caner was in remission. "I'm alive and well," he had told King. His cause of death would be complications from Alzheimer's disease, which he had kept private for the past three years he was diagnosed with it. Wilder's nephew Jordan Walker-Pearlman said in a statement, "The decision to wait until this time to disclose his condition wasn't vanity, but more so that the countless young children that would smile or call out to him 'there's Willy Wonka,' would not have to be then exposed to an adult referencing illness or trouble and causing delight to travel to worry, disappointment or confusion. He simply couldn't bear the idea of one less smile in the world." Even in death Wilder continues to put a smile on our faces, through the legacy of his filmography, and the charitable work he leaves behind. Rest in peace Gene Wilder, you were a good one. 

If you, too, want to give back, you can make a donation to help fight Alzheimer's here, here, here, or here or to donate to Gilda's Club, go here.

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