...how Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder made it to the altar 18 years ago, but the ending is a little bit sad.

By Nancy Sidewater
Updated September 20, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

So many jokes could have been made about a pair of comedians who met and fell in love while making a film called Hanky Panky. But the duo, Saturday Night Live alum Gilda Radner, 38, and comic champ Gene Wilder, 49, delivered the punchline themselves when they said ”I do” on Sept. 18, 1984.

After nearly three years together, the couple exchanged vows in the French Riviera village of Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Radner, who divorced SNL guitarist G.E. Smith after 22 months to be with Wilder, put together her own bridal outfit of a white silk shirt, gray culottes, and a straw hat. Officiated by the town’s mayor, the wedding was attended by only a few guests — the most important being the couple’s Yorkshire terrier, Sparkle, who deserves credit for the nuptials happening at all.

Radner liked to say that her ”life went from black and white to Technicolor” upon meeting Wilder in 1981. Friends knew it wouldn’t be long before the pair walked down the aisle. ”It was fun and infectious to be around them — they were so in love,” said longtime buddy Joan Ransohoff. ”Both had been married before, and they were very, very happy to have found one another.” But Wilder was not crazy about the idea of getting hitched again, and so Radner spent the next two and a half years trying to put a blaze in his saddle.

It was on their way to France for a 1984 vacation that Sparkle unwittingly helped to warm Wilder’s cold feet. The dog had ingested rat poison in the airport lounge and Radner, rushing to get her to the nearest vet, urged Wilder to go on without them. He surprised her by returning from the solo trip with an engagement ring.

After the wedding, Radner and Wilder honeymooned in Rome while promoting their second movie together, 1984’s The Woman in Red. Their first anniversary was celebrated in London on the set of what would be their last collaboration, 1986’s Haunted Honeymoon. Months after the film was released, the life of the woman who channeled such hilarious characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna and Emily Litella took a tragic turn: Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. On May 20, 1989, she succumbed to the disease.

After reeling from the loss of his wife, Wilder (who remarried in 1991) spent years as a cancer-awareness advocate, testifying before Congress about early detection and helping to establish Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit support group for cancer patients. For a man who always went for the laughs, it was a dramatic crusade. ”I’m hoping in some small way,” he once said, ”to help the other Gildas out there.”