Betting on Life

updated 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/01/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHEN ACTOR-DIRECTOR BILL BIXBY and artist Judith Kliban stood on a bluff overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and exchanged wedding vows Oct. 3, the traditional phrase "in sickness and in health" seemed particularly poignant. Last year, Bixby, 59, star of TV's The Incredible Hulk and a director of NBC's Blossom, was found to have a recurrence of prostate cancer. Three years ago, Kliban, 44, lost her husband, cat cartoonist B. "Hap" Kliban, 55, to a pulmonary embolism. When she met Bixby, "I was still coming out of grieving," Kliban says, and providing emotional support for him represents "a real healing for me."

"It was difficult to ask her," says Bixby, sitting with his bride in his Century City, Calif., town house. "But I was in love and didn't want to miss one of the best people in the world."

If Bixby's association with such shows as My Favorite Martian made him no stranger to comedy, he is no stranger to tragedy either. In 1981 his beloved 6-year-old son, Christopher, died suddenly of a rare respiratory ailment. A year later, Bixby's first wife, actress Brenda Benet, committed suicide. And in June 1992, at about the same time he learned that his cancer had spread, his second wife, Laura Jane Michael, filed for divorce.

Then last January, Bixby asked Blossom husband-and-wife executive producers Don Reo and Judith Allison, "Where do you meet somebody who excites your brain—as well as everything else?" Allison dialed Kliban, a longtime friend living in Hawaii. Bixby and Kliban began a phone relationship. A month later, Bixby accompanied the Reos on a Hawaiian vacation, where Bixby and Kliban hit it off in person. But on the third day of Bixby's visit, a severe infection sent him into a near coma. It was Kliban who nursed him. When Bixby proposed last April, Kliban recalls, "I said, 'If you live, I'll marry you.' "

Bixby, who is undergoing chemotherapy and is in constant pain, declares, "I don't feel like I'm hanging on to life by my nails anymore; that's the difference it has made to me." He reaches for Kliban's hand and addresses her as "Mrs. Bixby. Or," he asks hastily, "would you prefer Ms.?"

She smiles. "Mrs. Bixby," she replies, "is just fine."

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