Gilda Radner died 27 years before her husband Gene Wilder passed away this week

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated August 29, 2016 05:50 PM
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Credit: Kevin Winter/Getty

Twenty-seven years after the death of his beloved wife Gilda Radner, iconic actor Gene Wilder has died at the age of 83. Their celebrated romance, however, left a legacy of laughs, even as her early death from ovarian cancer devastated a nation of fans, just four years after the couple’s marriage.

Beginning on the set of 1982’s Hanky Panky – the first of their three onscreen collaborations – the Saturday Night Live star and Wilder’s spark was unmistakable.

“When I went to see Gilda, Gene was across the room,” psychotherapist Pain Katz told PEOPLE in 1989 of visiting the Sidney Poitier-directed film’s set. “There was a chemistry that was palpable and an electricity in the air. They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.”

In her memoir, It’s Always Something, which was published just before the actress’ death in 1989, Radner detailed her attraction to the “athletic and handsome” Wilder, explaining that she made it her full-time job to talk him into marrying her.

And he did, on Sept. 18, 1984, in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, France. The honeymoon never ended, longtime Wilder friend Joan Ransohoff told PEOPLE in 1989.

[IMAGE “1” “” “std” ]She said, “It was fun and infectious to be around them they were so in love. You were really happy for them.”

The marriage was neither’s first: Wilder had been wed twice before, and Radner once, shortly, to guitarist G.E. Smith. The past relationship failures made them “very, very happy to have found one another,” said Ransohoff. Radner once recalled of their bond, “My life went from black and white to Technicolor.”

Marital happiness was soon overshadowed by Radner’s troubling health: She miscarried twice before developing a persistent flu. It took several misdiagnoses from doctors to discover, in October 1986, that she had ovarian cancer.

Despite a hysterectomy, the cancer had spread to Radner’s liver and bowel. Through nine rounds of chemotherapy and 30 radiation treatments, Wilder stayed by his wife’s side.

“Gene was a doll,” Radner’s SNL costar Laraine Newman told PEOPLE in 1989. “Gilda said he was 100 percent there for her. But she felt guilty about him. She felt so bad that she was taking so much from him. She wanted to be able to take care of herself.”

[IMAGE “2” “” “std” ]And Radner was upbeat until the end, Wilder wrote in a PEOPLE essay in 1991. He explained, “Gilda wanted to find humor in it to make it less scary.”

At their Connecticut home, Wilder remembered, Radner would reenact her infamous character Roseanne Roseannadanna, shouting at the cancer cells invading her body, “Hey, what are you trying to do in here? Make me sick?”

On May 20, 1989, Radner died. Wilder was beyond devastated, he wrote in PEOPLE. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘This doesn’t make sense,’ ” he said, adding, “I was shouting at walls.”

“When she passed away, no matter what you said to Gene, his face didn’t move. He was just stunned and numb,” friend Dom DeLuise told The Washington Post in 2005.

Wilder couldn’t help but feel that something more could have been done – pain he channeled into a formal movement pushing early testing for ovarian cancer.

After months of research and correspondence with cancer experts across the country, Wilder appeared in front of a House subcommittee in 1991, testifying about Radner’s misdiagnoses. He subsequently helped establish the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A. to screen high-risk candidates and run basic diagnostic tests.

The actor also launched Gilda’s Club in 1995, a N.Y.C. center for cancer patients and their families to find support. The Club went worldwide in 2000, and, in 2009, merged with The Wellness Community to form the Cancer Support Community. It is, according to the Gilda’s Club website, now the largest cancer support network in the country.

Wilder eventually remarried, to Karen Boyer. The pair were wed for 25 years before his death from complications from Alzheimer’s disease Sunday at their home in Stamford, Connecticut.

Wilder told Larry King in 2002 that Boyer “absolutely” understood that Gilda will “always” have a special place in his heart.