Gilda Radner, 1946-1989

One of the charter members of the famed Saturday Night Live "Not Ready For Prime Time Players", actress and comedienne Gilda Radner and her pageant of stage personae brought a generation of TV viewers laughter: Her lengthy battle with cancer moved fans to tears. An Emmy winner and star of films and the Broadway stage, Gilda Radner died on May 20th 1989 at the age of 42.

The only daughter of a well-to-do family, Gilda Susan Radner was born on June 28th, 1946 in Detroit, Michigan. The daughter of businessman Herman Radner and his wife, Henrietta Ratkowski, Gilda was named for the title character of her mother's favorite Rita Hayworth film. The actress's early life was one of comfort and shaped by her parents Jewish and Lithuanian heritage. Gilda was particularly close to her father, Herman, and was devastated when he died around 1960. The loss of her father marked the beginning of Ms. Radner's lifelong battle with eating disorders, as well as her determination to realize her father's own lost dream, which had been to become a performer.

Ms. Radner entered the University of Michigan with concentrations in public speaking and oral interpretation. When better acting opportunities presented themselves "over the border", Ms. Radner left the University before graduation and moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada where she landed a lead in a production of the rock opera "Godspell". Honing her skill as an improvisational performer, Ms. Radner eventually joined Toronto's Second City Troupe, where her cast mates included John Candy, Dan Akroyd, John Belushi and Catherine O'Hara. The group was strictly a live performance company for several years, integrating with another Second City company based in Chicago. Ms. Radner began the seemingly endless string of auditions and break-in roles in film and television, which included a lead in the Canadian Broadcast Company children's "Flash Fantasy: Jack", something of a fairy tale rock opera.

Close personal and working relationships came through work with Second City, with Candy, Akroyd and Belushi becoming lifelong friends of Ms. Radner's. In addition to performing and writing for Second City, Ms. Radner scored small parts in the Jack Nicholson film "The Last Detail" and the Mel Brooks comedy "Blazing Saddles", which was a small role with big results: The film served to introduce Ms. Radner to Madeline Kahn and Gene Wilder. Returning to Canada, the actress and her Second City cohort John Candy were cast in the kids comedy series "Dr. Zonk and the Zunkins", but her tenure was brief: That year, John Belushi, Dan Akroyd and other members of Second City convinced Ms. Radner to migrate to New York to join the players in the "National Lampoon Show". In New York, NBC producer Lorne Michaels was working on a comedy-variety program for that network and put out a cattle call for actors and comedians, which the former Second City members tested for.

Gilda Radner later recounted that her audition for Lorne Michaels had included accountings of her amazing skills at bingo (she could allegedly play 14 cards at once), a recitation of her full day's menu, and a grueling and somewhat schizophrenic series of on-the-spot improvisations, including an imitation of her Nanny Dibby who later emerged as series staple Emily Litella. Unbeknownst to Ms. Radner, Michaels was smitten with her performance: She was the first of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players to be cast in what premiered in 1975 as the after hours show "Saturday Night Live".

Michaels and NBC labored over casting and program concept (the original 1975 line up featured Muppet creator Jim Henson) while Ms. Radner searched for a stable job, receiving an offer from the CBC to host a talk and variety show in Toronto that already had a guaranteed sponsor and several year run planned by the network. Michaels confirmed Ms. Radner's casting however, and the tiny actress from Detroit became part of television history.

Saturday Night Live emerged a surprise hit, with Gilda Radner becoming a key writer and performer who frequently eclipsed her female costars Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. With her cast mates John Belushi, Dan Akroyd, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray, Ms. Radner became famed for her wildly physical brand of fearless comedy and her regularly featured characters, some of whom contributed catch phrases to the 1970s and 80s slang lexicon.

Her half-deaf, spinsterly media analyst Emily Litella ended her tangents with "Oh. Never mind", while Geek Queen Lisa Lupner coined "That was so funny I almost forgot to laugh" while suffering the wrath of Murray's "Noogie Patrol". Her fright-wigged, heavily accented newscaster Roseanne Rosanna-Danna used the late Herman Radner's favorite catch-phrase, "It just goes to show you, it's always something". Ms. Radner frequently topped not only the television ratings but popularity surveys, a feat she attributed to granting interviews to every high school journalist who came looking for her.

Saturday Night Live propelled Gilda Radner further up the career ladder, while her repertoire of characters and credits grew. She joined forces with some of her SNL cast mates and members of England's famed Monty Python comedy troupe for the "mock-umentary" "The Rutles" in 1978. The year also marked Ms. Radner's second of three Emmy nominations, and her receipt of an award for Outstanding Supporting Actress.

After making guest appearances on such popular programs as Jim Henson's Muppet Show, talk programs, plus the weekly SNL shows, Gilda Radner launched her one-woman Broadway revue "Gilda Radner- Live From New York!" in 1979- a critical and popular success. "Gilda Live" was taped in 1980 for a special cable television broadcast, one of several landmarks for that year of the actress's life: She also married SNL band leader and guitar player G.E. Smith, and left the popular series for good.

Ms. Radner's first film lead came in 1980 as well: she starred as the daughter of a dysfunctional Presidential household in the comedy "First Family" with Bob Newhart and her longtime friend Madeline Kahn. In the following year, the actress, suffering nervous exhaustion, a crumbling marriage, and a renewed battle with bulemia was tapped to replace Richard Pryor in a role opposite actor Gene Wilder. The "buddy film" was rewritten to feature Ms. Radner as a female sidekick and love interest and released in 1982 as "Hanky Panky", a much needed morale boost for the actress who divorced Smith the same year.

In 1984, Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder married, becoming a successful couple on screen and off. The pair costarred in such well received films as "The Woman in Red" and the screwball comedy "Haunted Honeymoon", while in between Ms. Radner made "Movers and Shakers" with Walter Matthau.

While filming "Movers and Shakers" Ms. Radner suffered chronic fatigue and mysterious bouts of unexplained illness and pains her doctors dismissed as "flu" or overwork. Almost a year later, in 1986, Gilda Radner collapsed and was found to have been suffering advanced ovarian cancer.

Through nearly three years of treatment that included nine series of chemotherapy, surgery and thirty sessions of radiation treatment, Gilda Radner retained her famed sense of humor. When the actress lost her hair during treatment, she opted to wear her gravity-defying Rosanne Rosanna-Danna wig. She penned her memoir, "It's Always Something", and spent her able days visiting other cancer patients, bolstering their spirits as well as those of her husband and friends.

While her own spirits never seemed to fail, the physical toll finally became too great. Gilda Radner died in Los Angeles, California, on May 20th, 1989. At her death, her survivors included her husband, Gene Wilder, and her brother, Michael Radner.

In the wake of her death, Gilda Radner's friends and family worked to found the Gilda Clubs, a non-profit organization whose flagship center in New York spawned centers in over a dozen cities, including the actress's home town, Detroit. The Gilda Club centers offer free support for cancer patients and their families, including workshops, counseling, education, networking, and a special program for children, "Noogieland", which provides services ranging from day care for children of cancer patients to special support programs designed for children and teensThe Gilda's Club accepts memorial donations to continue the actress's work of fighting the disease through love, laughter and support.

 

If you would like to learn more about Gilda Radner we recommend these works:

It's Always Something (by Gilda Radner)

Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner (A Sort of Love Story)
(by Alan Zweibel)

An A&E Biography: Gilda Radner

Gilda Live!

Live From New York: It's Gilda Radner!