For the Love of Gilda: Gene Wilder’s Amazing Cancer Legacy
As co-founder of Gilda’s Club, Wilder turned his grief over wife Gilda Radner’s death into action around ovarian cancer and helping those affected by all cancers.
“This man is so much an integral part of Gilda’s Club, to think that he’s gone is very hard,” Safani told The Daily Beast.
Wilder co-founded the organization in 1991, two years after his third wife, the comedian Gilda Radner—most famous as one of the founding cast members of Saturday Night Live—died from ovarian cancer at the age of 42.
“He helped raise money for Gilda’s Club, so we could have a house on West Houston Street,” Safani said of the group’s central meeting place, which opened in 1995. “The legacy of Gilda Radner is really also his legacy, so he is very dear to us at Gilda’s Club.”
In the last 20-plus years, “Gilda’s Clubs” have become places for anyone with cancer and their loved ones, and those whose loved ones have died of the disease, to come together to share their experiences, memories, and so much more.
“Everybody at the clubhouse is talking about this. I’m sure everyone is sitting around remembering Gene,” said Safani. “Now both he and Gilda have gone.”
Safani was planning to call Joanna Bull, Radner’s cancer psychotherapist and one of those who helped Wilder co-found Gilda’s (Bull did not return a Daily Beast request for comment).
“There’s so many of us,” said Safani. “We breathe and live Gilda’s Club. Gene is part of the fabric that made this place. When something like this happens you have to take a moment and live in the moment. For me I feel immensely proud that part of this organization and that had the opportunity to be part of a special community. There’s a whole flood of thoughts and memories when anyone passes away. You keep remembering things.”
Wilder and Radner—whose most famous SNL characters were Roseanne Roseannadanna and masterful Barbara Walters alter ego Baba Wawa—had married in 1984, after meeting on the set of Sidney Poitier’s movie Hanky Panky (1982). She was his third wife, and he was her second husband.
Safani told The Daily Beast that Wilder (who himself battled non-Hodgkins lymphoma) was a big advocate of early detection for cancer because it had taken Radner “so long to find out she had ovarian cancer. By then it was so late. She died probably due to the fact they didn’t find it right away—although we’ll never know.”
Safani said Radner had not been feeling well for some time. “The diagnostics and screening at that time aren’t what they are now. She went to many doctors. They thought she had Epstein-Barr. Who knows what happened, and why it was missed but unfortunately when one doctor, an oncologist, figured it out it was pretty late in the game. She started doing treatments, but unfortunately we lost her.”
In a moving interview in People magazine after Radner’s death, Wilder had described in painful detail how Radner’s symptoms had long gone undiagnosed, starting from feeling faint on her way to a tennis game in 1986.
Finally, 10 months after her first exam, Radner was told she had ovarian cancer. “Thank God, finally someone believes me!” she said to Wilder.
Radner received counseling support in California. Bull had introduced her to cancer support groups; the comedian later wrote, “There should be a thousand of them.”
“She talked openly about cancer,” said Safani. “Being around people who had cancer made a big difference. She talked about her fears and experiences and joked around. This community really understood what she was going through, and that really helped her a great deal. It was her wish that a community would open up in New York.”
After Radner died, Wilder and his fellow Gilda’s Club co-founders came together to raise money to purchase the building on West Houston Street.
Wilder also helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, which now houses the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program.
In 1991, he told the Los Angeles Times that he wanted to create awareness about testing for CA 125, a substance in the blood that indicates ovarian cancer, and the risk factors for a person who has a family history of ovarian cancer.
“I thought if we can make a dent in those two things, then I’ll be happy. I didn’t know if it could be done, or how long it would take, but it has been done now,” Wilder told the paper, “and I feel confident about that purpose being accomplished, and now I can go back to watercolor painting and maybe acting.”
Wilder’s motivation in his activism, he told People, was hearing Radner’s voice. “All along I kept hearing Gilda saying, ‘Don’t just sit there, dummy, do something!’”
When he was walking through the halls of Congress, waiting to testify about the issue, Wilder told People, “I could hear that raspy, whining voice—Gilda’s—saying, ‘Go on, don’t make such a big deal of it. Now, don’t get mushy, don’t get melancholy. You’re not the victim. I was the victim. Don’t go soft and sad and poetic, as if a great tragedy happened to you.’”
“He was very sincere and dedicated about the importance of Gilda’s Club, and talked to Gilda as if she were alive,” said Safani. “I wasn’t there, but he was very proud when he cut the ribbon to open the building. He was happy to be involved.”
In 1991, he married his fourth wife, Karen Boyer, and moved to Connecticut—but, said Safani, “I’m sure this is one of the proudest things he did: to be able to help cancer patients.”
In person, Wilder was humorous, she said. “He is the way he is,” she said, using the present tense. “The way he speaks is very much the way he is. He is not very much different to the person you see regularly.”
Since 1995, 11,000 individuals and families have visited the NYC branch of Gilda’s and the group today has over 4,200 members.
Over the years, Gilda’s Club has also grown nationally: There are 16 clubhouses across America, said Safani. In 2009, Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with The Wellness Community to form the Cancer Support Community (CSC), now the largest cancer support network in the country.
In 2013 Wilder objected when the Madison, Wisconsin, chapter, who said younger members were unaware of Radner, wanted to change its name from Gilda’s Club to a CSC variant.
Wilder told of his shock of being informed of this: “[The reporter] told me about the name change and I said, ‘I had no idea.’ Then I pictured that Gilda was hearing it too and that she was really sad and asking me, ‘How could they do that?’ She would have cried.
“As her husband I could have told [Gilda’s Club of Madison] that ‘I think it would hurt Gilda’s feelings terribly if she were watching what you’re doing and that there’s no reason to hurt her or those who love her. There are millions of people who still love her.”
Today, Gilda’s Club has grown to embrace patients, family, friends, caregivers; children, teens, and adults.
Over 20,000 people use its services annually, said Safani. There are support groups, workshops, and social activities. “There is a program for everyone, because we feel cancer doesn’t just impact the person diagnosed, but the immediate network of that person, too. Everyone who has been impacted through cancer comes together here. You can make lifelong friends, and come together to live with cancer, whatever the outcome.”
The spirit of Radner lives on very tangibly: A cartoon of her is featured all around the West Houston Street clubhouse, and every year Gilda’s Club holds GildaFest, a comedic celebration of Radner, which honors innovative female comedians.
This year’s honoree was Melissa McCarthy, the year before that, Amy Poehler. “We try to keep the spirit of comedy alive and remember her in that way,” said Safani. “Gene was our honorary chair. He’s an icon of this organization.”
Gilda’s Club also performs outreach work in specific hospitals, and its present goal is to reach “the underserved communities of New York City,” said Safani. It has a “robust” Spanish program, and intends to go out “into every neighborhood to reach those who are uninsured and unemployed, where we feel the need is greatest.”
And still, in the spirit of Radner and Wilder, humor is central to the Gilda’s Club mission. “When you come to the clubhouse, you’ll meet people who are not incredibly sad. Everyone learns to live with cancer. Of course, you can’t change the outcome, but you can change how you decide to live with it. People who go through Gilda’s Club meet friends. Sure, we cry, we get angry, but we laugh and joke, and have a good time. Humor is an essential part of living with cancer.”