How Gene Wilder Found Love Again After Gilda Radner – and Spent His Final Years with Wife Karen as a Renaissance Man

Throughout their 25-year marriage, the couple lived an "idyllic life" together in Connecticut, his newphew tells PEOPLE

Photo: Al Bello/Getty

They say you find love when you’re least expecting it – and that’s exactly what happened when Gene Wilder met his future wife Karen Boyer.

The actor had been married to iconic comedian Gilda Radner – a famed romance that ended tragically when Radner died in 1989 of ovarian cancer, more than four years after they had wed. Wilder’s nephew, Jordan Walker-Pearlman, tells PEOPLE the actor “questioned whether he would ever date again.”

“I think a part of him, after Gilda, wondered, ‘Will I ever find someone who excites me again,’ ” says Walker-Pearlman of the legendary Willy Wonka star, who died Sunday of complications from Alzheimer’s disease at age 83. “He never went on a single date after Gilda died.”

But after taking some time to mourn the loss of Radner, Wilder eventually felt comfortable re-joining the dating world – and he knew exactly who he wanted to call.

“He said to me, ‘You know, this sounds crazy but you know that [Karen Boyer]? I am going to call her up and ask her for a date.’ It was about a year after Gilda died,” says his nephew. “Karen was quite surprised to receive that call.”

Wilder met Boyer, a speech consultant, while doing research for the 1989 film See No Evil, Hear No Evil. And while they didn’t go on their first date until a year after meeting, once they finally did reconnect, their bond was unbreakable.

“After Gilda passed away, it was so devastating to him, and that Karen would walk into his life was such a wonderful miracle,” he says. “He never had a date with anyone else until Karen and he ended up marrying her. He was worried he wouldn’t know how to date anymore, but once he realized he could date, he didn’t want to date anyone but Karen.

The pair dated for two years before tying the knot in an “extremely private” wedding ceremony on his property in Connecticut surrounded by their closest friends and family, his nephew says.

Throughout their 25-year marriage the couple lived a low-key life in Connecticut, spending their days playing tennis, writing and painting together. “Most people would consider their daily life a romantic vacation. He built a very idyllic life. There was nothing that brought him the tranquility that his marriage to Karen did.”

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And after a troubled childhood and years in Hollywood, Wilder found peace, his nephew says, in his simple life with Boyer.

“There was a part of him that was very much a 19th-century impressionist’s, that would just like a bottle of red wine, a warm sun, fresh bread and a true leading lady. He was an extreme romantic,” says Walker-Pearlman. “Suddenly he just had this moment when he married Karen and all these different good parts of his life came together. He became more of a Renaissance man when he stopped making films.”

Wilder died on Sunday at his home in Stamford, Connecticut – just days before his 25th wedding anniversary with Boyer.

“They wrote in their wedding vows how they were going to dedicate their lives to each other,” Walker-Pearlman says. “And that’s what they did.”

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