Gene Wilder, known for his acting roles in films such as Young Frankestein, The Producers, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, and more, was married to four different women over the course of his lifetime. Many fans remember Gilda Radner, Wilder’s third wife, as their favorite of his leading ladies, his “true” love. But his fourth wife’s love and devotion should certainly not be forgotten either.
Karen Boyer, a speech pathologist for the hearing impaired, coached Wilder through his role as a deaf man in the film See No Evil, Hear No Evil. Wilder was married to Radner at the time, but she was in the final stages of her battle with ovarian cancer. Although Wilder did not expect to find love again after her passing, he and Boyer formed a strong bond, reconnected after Radner’s death, and later ended up marrying.
In an essay she penned for ABC News, Karen says she never pictured herself getting married to a movie star. She didn’t picture herself caring for him through Alzheimer’s disease either.
“For more than twenty years, we were one of the happiest couples I knew,” she writes. Together, they went dancing, played tennis, painted, travelled the world, and more.
Slowly, however, Gene began exhibiting symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, including aggression, problems with depth perception, and the inability to remember the words for common items. He finally got tested for the disease, and his family was given the terrible news.
Karen was devastated, but she was also inspired by the grace with which her husband accepted his diagnosis. And she loved him. So there was nothing left to do but take care of him the best she could.
“One day, I saw him struggle with the ties on his drawstring pants,” she says. “That night, I took the drawstrings out. Then his wrist was bleeding from the failed effort of trying to take off his watch. I put his watch away.”
Karen did everything she could to keep Gene at home with her, using resources from the Alzheimer’s Association to help her. Even knowing that 40 percent of Alzheimer’s caregivers die from stress-related disorders before the patient dies, she was determined to give her husband the care he deserved.
Over time, Gene began to trip and fall a lot and was often unable to stand up again. Eventually, he was bedridden and spent days without saying anything at all. On the night he died, he spoke his last words, telling Karen three times, “I trust you.”
Gene died of complications of Alzheimer’s disease on August 29, 2016, at the age of 83. He was surrounded by family, who held his hands as he passed, and the last thing he heard was one of his favorite songs, Over the Rainbow.
Learn more about Karen’s role in the end of Gene Wilder’s life in the video below.
After Gene’s death, Karen partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association to create the Pure Imagination Project, inspired by Gene’s roll in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, to encourage donations to support Alzheimer’s research. Check out one of Gene’s final great contributions to the world in the video below.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?