With his death at 83 due to complications from Alzheimer's on Sunday, Gene Wilder left behind a legacy full of laughter and joy. But as we remember him for his beloved roles in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Blazing Saddles, it's also important to honor his legacy as an advocate for women's health. In 1995, Wilder co-founded Gilda's Club New York City, a cancer support network in memory of his third wife, Gilda Radner (one of the founding cast members of Saturday Night Live), who died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Wilder and Radner met on the set of the 1982 film Hanky Panky and quickly became a comedy power couple, marrying in 1984 and remaining together until she died. Wilder stayed by Radner's side throughout her illness, and was candid about what she went through during treatment. "Of all the mistakes I made dealing with her illness, and I promise you I’ve made some I’m too ashamed to talk about, it was never an issue when Gilda lost her hair," he told People in an interview in 1991. "Those little bean sprouts growing on top of her head were adorable, like a newborn baby. I thought it was sexy. And the more I thought that, the happier it made Gilda." Radner's disease started with subtle symptoms like fatigue and bloating, and as such they went misdiagnosed for months. Her cancer had reached an advanced stage by the time she received a proper diagnosis and treatment. It was his belief that her death could have been avoided that spurred Wilder into action. “She could be alive today if I knew then what I know now,” Wilder told People. In addition to co-founding Gilda's Club, he also helped to establish the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and testified before a Congressional committee in 1991 to raise awareness about testing for CA 125, a biomarker in the blood that can indicate ovarian cancer. While CA 125 screening is an imperfect test and is not recommended as a diagnostic tool, it is now used in some cases to monitor women who have a high risk for developing ovarian cancer. Radner reportedly had a family history of the disease.
"We were all so ignorant about ovarian cancer," he told People. "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.'" His legacy is still keenly felt today, with Gilda's Club expanding beyond the New York City headquarters to include a nationwide network. On Monday, the organization tweeted devastation over his death.
"It is with deep sorrow that we mourn the passing of Gene Wilder — he will remain forever in our hearts at Gilda's Club," Lily Safani, CEO of Gilda's Club, told Refinery29 in a statement. "We are grateful to him, both as the founder of Gilda’s Club and as an advocate for cancer patients and their families for so many years. Now 21 years old and serving thousands of cancer patients and their families, Gilda's Club, Gene’s and Gilda’s legacy, lives on." Wilder may be most beloved for reminding us that "we are the music-makers...and we are the dreamers of dreams," but let's not forget the devotion to Radner that led to his commitment to making sure others didn't suffer alone. He certainly never forgot. For ways to support Gilda's Club, head to their website.