Actor Gene Wilder was shocked when a reporter called to say a chapter of a cancer support group created in honor of his late wife, comedienne Gilda Radner, was dropping her name.
"I said 'I had no idea,'" Wilder told Web2Carz online magazine in a recent interview. "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."
Radner, an original “Saturday Night Live” star of 1975 who put baby boomers in stiches with her one-of-a-kind sketches, died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at age 42 and the national non-profit Gilda’s Club organization is named for her.
However, Radner is considered too outdated for donors and younger people involved with the cancer support organization to remember or connect with, according to officials at the Wisconsin chapter that changed its name to Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin. A few other chapters have joined in making the name more generic.
Wilder, star of the original "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" and "Young Frankenstein," managed to finesse a polite response when he found out about the name change.
However, hundreds of Radner fans have expressed outrage at the change via Facebook and Twitter, arguing that all meaning will be lost if her name is eliminated.
Wilder was married to Radner for the last five years of her life and helped get the support group off the ground.
"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,'" he said.
Radner met Wilder in 1982 on the set of "Hanky Panky." It was love at first sight, Wilder recalled to Web2Carz
"On the first night of filming near the Hudson River she looked at me and started to cry. I asked, 'why are you crying?' and she said, 'because I know I'm going to marry you.' I said, 'we're going a little fast here.'" he said. "She was just so active about everything and the way she felt — her crying, her laughing, everything."
According to Web2Carz, Radner's dying wish was to create a center for people with cancer to receive emotional and social support. With the help of Wilder and Joanna Bull, Radner's psychotherapist, the first Gilda's Club opened in New York City in 1995, with the motto "No one should have to face cancer alone."
"It took Joanna and I four and a half years to get the first one in New York going. It took a long time to raise the money and get people to know about it," Wilder said. "I had originally thought 'Well, I could take a year out of my life to do this but it took four years. But we had people from all over the world to help us."
Although he has nothing to do with the national organization today, Wilder remained active in cancer-related causes in years following her death and helped found the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles.
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