Gilda Radner

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Gilda Radner
Radner sitting in Wilder's lap, smiling
Radner with actor-husband Gene Wilder in the film Haunted Honeymoon, 1986
Born Gilda Susan Radner
(1946-06-28)June 28, 1946
Detroit, Michigan
Died May 20, 1989(1989-05-20) (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California
Cause of death
Ovarian cancer
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Michigan
Occupation comedian, actress
Years active 1973–1989
Notable work(s) Saturday Night Live
Spouse(s) G. E. Smith (1980–1982; divorced)
Gene Wilder (1984–1989; her death)

Gilda Susan Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989) was an American comedian and actress. She was best remembered as an original cast member of the hit NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1978.

Early life[edit]

Radner was born in Detroit, Michigan, United States, the daughter of Jewish parents Henrietta (née Dworkin), a legal secretary, and Herman Radner, a businessman.[1][2] She grew up in Detroit with a nanny, Elizabeth Clementine Gillies, whom she called "Dibby" (and on whom she based her famous character Emily Litella),[3] and an older brother named Michael. She attended the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe. Toward the end of her life, Radner wrote in her autobiography, It's Always Something, that during her childhood and young adulthood she battled numerous eating disorders: "I coped with stress by having every possible eating disorder from the time I was nine years old. I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93. When I was a kid, I overate constantly. My weight distressed my mother and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old."[4]

Radner was close to her father, who operated Detroit's Seville Hotel, where many nightclub performers and actors stayed while performing in the city.[5] He took her on trips to New York to see Broadway shows.[6] As Radner wrote in It's Always Something, when she was twelve her father developed a brain tumor, and the symptoms began so suddenly that he told people his eyeglasses were too tight.[7] Within days he was bedridden and unable to communicate, and remained in that condition until his death two years later.[7]

College[edit]

Radner graduated from Liggett and enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1964, where she made a lifelong platonic friend of fellow student David Saltman, who wrote a biography of her after her death. Gilda joined him and his girlfriend on a trip to Paris in the summer of 1966. Saltman wrote that he was so affectionate with his girlfriend that they left Radner to fend for herself for much of their sightseeing.[5] Twenty years later, when details of Radner's eating disorder were reported in a bestselling book about Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad,[8] Saltman realized Radner had been in a quandary over the French cuisine, but had no one with whom she could discuss her situation.[5]

Career[edit]

In Ann Arbor, Radner began her broadcasting career as the weather girl for college radio station WCBN, but dropped out in her senior year[9] to follow her then-boyfriend, a Canadian sculptor named Jeffrey Rubinoff, to Toronto, Canada. In Toronto, she made her professional acting debut in the 1972 production of Godspell with future stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber, and Martin Short. Afterward, Radner joined the Toronto Second City comedy troupe.

Radner was a featured player on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a comedy program syndicated to some 600 U.S. radio stations from 1974 to 1975. Fellow cast members included John Belushi, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray, and Rhonda Coullet.

Saturday Night Live[edit]

Radner gained name recognition as one of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players", the freshman group on the first season of Saturday Night Live. She was the first performer cast for the show.[6] Between 1975 and 1980, she created characters such as obnoxious personal advice expert Roseanne Roseannadanna and "Baba Wawa", a parody of Barbara Walters. Walters stated in an interview that Radner was the "first person to make fun of news anchors, now it's done all the time."[10]

She also played the character Emily Litella, an elderly hearing-impaired woman who gave angry and misinformed editorial replies on "Weekend Update".[6] In addition, Radner parodied celebrities such as Lucille Ball, Patti Smith, and Olga Korbut in SNL sketches. She won an Emmy Award in 1978 for her work on SNL.

Radner battled bulimia while on the show. She once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center.[8] She had a relationship with SNL castmate Bill Murray, with whom she worked at the National Lampoon, and that ended badly. Few details of their relationship or its end were made public. When Radner wrote It's Always Something, this is the one reference she made of Murray in the entire book: "All the guys [in the National Lampoon group of writers and performers] liked to have me around because I would laugh at them till I peed in my pants and tears rolled out of my eyes. We worked together for a couple of years creating The National Lampoon Show, writing The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and even working on stuff for the magazine. Bill Murray joined the show and Richard Belzer ..."[11]

in Live from New York (1980)

In 1979, incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she turned down.[9] That year, she was a host of the Music for UNICEF Concert at the United Nations General Assembly.

Alan Zweibel, who co-created the Roseanne Roseannadanna character and co-wrote Roseanne's dialogue, recalled that Radner, one of three original SNL cast members who stayed away from cocaine, chastised him for abusing it.[12] Playing the character of Roseannadanna, she gave the commencement address to the graduating class at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1979.[13]

Radner had mixed emotions about the fans and strangers who recognized her in public. She sometimes became "angry when she was approached, and upset when she wasn't."[8]

Broadway[edit]

In 1979, Radner appeared on Broadway in a successful one-woman show entitled Gilda Radner - Live From New York.[14] The show featured material that was racier than NBC censors allowed on Saturday Night Live, such as the song Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals. In 1979, shortly before Radner's final season on Saturday Night Live, her Broadway show was filmed by Mike Nichols under the title Gilda Live!, co-starring Paul Shaffer and Don Novello, and was released in theaters nationwide in 1980 with poor results. A soundtrack album was unsuccessful. During the production, she met her first husband, G. E. Smith, a musician who worked on the show. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1980.[9]

In the fall of 1980, after all original SNL cast members departed from the show, Radner starred opposite Sam Waterston in the Jean Kerr play, Lunch Hour, as a pair whose spouses are having an affair, and in response invent their own, consisting of trysts on their lunch hour.[15] The show ran for over seven months.

Marriage to Gene Wilder[edit]

Radner met actor Gene Wilder on the set of the Sidney Poitier film Hanky Panky, when the two appeared together. She described their first meeting as "love at first sight."[9] She was unable to resist her attraction to Wilder as her marriage to guitarist G. E. Smith deteriorated. Radner went on to make a second film, The Woman in Red, released in 1984 with Wilder and their relationship grew. The two were married on September 18, 1984, in St. Tropez.[9] The pair made a third film together, Haunted Honeymoon, released in 1986.[9] They remained married until her death in 1989.

Illness[edit]

Radner's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

After experiencing severe fatigue and suffering from pain in her upper legs on the set of Haunted Honeymoon in the United Kingdom in 1985, Radner sought medical treatment. After 10 months of inept diagnostics, she learned that she had ovarian cancer on October 21, 1986.[9] She suffered extreme physical and emotional pain during chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.[9]

After her diagnosis, the following issue of the National Enquirer ran the headline Gilda Radner In Life-Death Struggle. Without asking for her comment,[16] the publication asserted that she was dying. Radner wrote in It's Always Something: "They found an old photo of me looking frightened from a 'Saturday Night Live' sketch and blew that up to make the point. What they did probably sold newspapers, but it had a devastating effect on my family and my friends. It forced Gene to compose a press release to respond. He said that I had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, had had surgery and my prognosis was good. The Enquirer doesn't like good news, so the Gilda Radner story stopped running."[16]

Four months after her ordeal with the National Enquirer, Radner saw her Saturday Night Live castmates one last time at the 35th birthday party of Laraine Newman (March 1987). According to Bill Murray[17] when he heard she was leaving the party, he and Dan Aykroyd carried her around and around the Los Angeles house where the party was held, repeatedly saying goodbye to everyone. Since all the guests were comedians, they all did comedy bits with her, over and over.

Remission[edit]

After Radner was told that she had gone into remission, she wrote It's Always Something (a catchphrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna),[9] which included details of her struggle with the illness. Life magazine did a March 1988 cover story on her illness, titled "Gilda Radner's Answer to Cancer: Healing the Body with Mind and Heart." In 1988, Radner guest-starred on It's Garry Shandling's Show on Fox (TV network), to critical acclaim. When Shandling asked her why she had not been seen in public for a while, she replied, "Oh, I had cancer. What did you have?" Shandling's reply: "A very bad series of career moves ... which, by the way, there's no cure for whatsoever." She repeated on-camera Mark Twain's apocryphal saying,[18] "Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated." Radner planned to host an episode of Saturday Night Live that year, but a writers' strike caused the cancellation of the network television season.

Death[edit]

In September 1988, after biopsies and a saline wash of her abdomen showed no signs of cancer, Radner went on a maintenance chemotherapy treatment to prolong her remission, but in December of that same year, she learned that the cancer returned after a routine blood test showed that levels of the tumor marker CA-125 had increased.[19] She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 17, 1989 for a CAT scan. Despite expressing her fear that she would never wake up, she was given a sedative and passed into a coma during the scan. She did not regain consciousness, and died three days later from ovarian cancer at 6:20 am on May 20, 1989; Wilder was at her side.[6][20]

Gene Wilder said about her death:

She went in for the scan – but the people there could not keep her on the gurney. She was raving like a crazed woman – she knew they would give her morphine and was afraid she'd never regain consciousness. She kept getting off the cart as they were wheeling her out. Finally three people were holding her gently and saying, "Come on Gilda. We're just going to go down and come back up." She kept saying, "Get me out, get me out!" She'd look at me and beg me, "Help me out of here. I've got to get out of here." And I'd tell her, "You're okay honey. I know. I know." They sedated her, and when she came back, she remained unconscious for three days. I stayed at her side late into the night, sometimes sleeping over. Finally a doctor told me to go home and get some sleep. At 4 am on Saturday, I heard a pounding on my door. It was an old friend, a surgeon, who told me, "Come on. It's time to go." When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes. She put a pretty yellow barrette in her hair. She looked like an angel. So peaceful. She was still alive, and as she lay there, I kissed her. But then her breathing became irregular, and there were long gasps and little gasps. Two hours after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.[21]

Her funeral was held in Connecticut on May 24, 1989. In lieu of flowers, her family requested that donations be sent to The Wellness Community. Her gravestone reads: "Gilda Radner Wilder - Comedienne - Ballerina 1946–1989". She was interred at Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.[22]

By coincidence, the news of her death broke on early Saturday afternoon (Eastern Daylight Time), while Steve Martin was rehearsing as the guest host for that night's season finale of Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live personnel—including Lorne Michaels, Phil Hartman, and Mike Myers (who had, in his own words, "fallen in love" with Radner after playing her son in a BC Hydro commercial on Canadian television and considered her the reason he wanted to be on SNL)[23]—had not known she was so close to death. They scrapped Martin's planned opening monologue and instead, Martin, in tears, introduced a video clip of a 1978 sketch in which he and Radner parodied Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in a well-known dance routine from The Band Wagon.[24]

Legacy[edit]

Cedars-Sinai Medical Center hosts the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center

Wilder established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates (such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) and to run basic diagnostic tests. He testified before a Congressional committee that Radner's condition had been misdiagnosed and that if doctors had inquired more deeply into her family background they would have learned that her grandmother, aunt, and cousin all died of ovarian cancer, and therefore they might have attacked the disease earlier.[25]

Radner's death from ovarian cancer helped raise awareness of early detection and the connection to familial epidemiology.[26] The media attention in the two years after Radner's death led to registry of 450 families with familial ovarian cancer at the Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry, a research database registry at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. The registry was later renamed the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry (GRFOCR).[27] In 1996, Gene Wilder and Registry founder Steven Piver, one of Radner's medical consultants, published Gilda's Disease: Sharing Personal Experiences and a Medical Perspective on Ovarian Cancer. Through Wilder's efforts and those of others, awareness of ovarian cancer and its symptoms has continued to grow.

In 1991, Gilda's Club, a network of affiliate clubhouses where people living with cancer, their friends and families, can meet to learn how to live with cancer, was founded. The center was named for a quip from Radner, who said, "Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to."[9] Many Gilda's Clubs have opened across the United States and in Canada. In 2009, Gilda's Club merged with a similar institution, The Wellness Community, under the name of Cancer Support Community, which was legally adopted in 2011.

In 2002, the ABC television network aired a television movie about her life: Gilda Radner: It's Always Something, starring Jami Gertz as Radner.

In 2007, she was featured in the film Making Trouble, a tribute to female Jewish comedians, produced by the Jewish Women's Archive.[28]

Awards and honors[edit]

Radner won an Emmy Award for "Outstanding Continuing or Single Performance by a Supporting Actress in Variety or Music" for her performance on Saturday Night Live in 1977. She posthumously won a Grammy for "Best Spoken Word Or Non-Musical Recording" in 1990.

In 1992, Radner was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in arts and entertainment. On June 27, 2003, she received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6801 Hollywood Blvd.

Parts of West Houston Street in New York City, Lombard Street in Toronto, and Chester Street in White Plains, New York have been renamed "Gilda Radner Way."

Filmography[edit]

Television[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1974 Jack: A Flash Fantasy Jill of Hearts
1974 The Gift of Winter Nicely/Malicious/Narrator Voice Only
1974–75 Dr. Zonk and the Zunkins Voice Only
1975–80 Saturday Night Live Various Characters 107 Episodes
Also Writer
Primetime Emmy Award for Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program
1978 All You Need Is Cash Mrs. Emily Pules Radner appeared in a cameo role as a character who is cornered on the street by Eric Idle for an interview about her memories of The Rutles
1978 The Muppet Show Herself 1 Episode
1978 Witch's Night Out Witch Voice Only
1979 Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda Herself
1980 Animalympics Barbara Warbler/Brenda Springer/Coralee
Perrier/Tatiana Tushenko/Doree Turnell
Voice Only
1985 Reading Rainbow Herself Voice Only
1 Episode
1988 It's Garry Shandling's Show Herself 1 Episode

Films[edit]

Year Title Role Notes
1973 The Last Detail Nichiren Shoshu Member
1979 Mr. Mike's Mondo Video Herself
1980 Gilda Live Herself/Various Characters Also Writer
1980 First Family Gloria Link
1982 Hanky Panky Kate Hellman
1982 It Came from Hollywood Herself
1984 The Woman in Red Ms. Millner
1985 Movers & Shakers Livia Machado
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Vickie Pearle

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Fighting for Life". Los Angeles Daily News. 1989-07-11. 
  2. ^ "Gilda Radner Biography (1946–1989)". Film Reference. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  3. ^ "Michaels and Radner talk SNL". 90 Minutes Live. CBC Television. 1978-02-02. Retrieved 2009-01-24. 
  4. ^ Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 97
  5. ^ a b c Saltman, David. Gilda: An Intimate Portrait. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1992.
  6. ^ a b c d Hevesi, Dennis. "Gilda Radner, 42, Comic Original Of 'Saturday Night Live' Zaniness". New York Times May 21, 1989.
  7. ^ a b Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 99
  8. ^ a b c Hill, Doug and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree Books. 1986.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  10. ^ Barbara Walters being interviewed about Gilda Radner on YouTube
  11. ^ Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 100–101.
  12. ^ Zweibel, Alan. Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner. New York: Villard, 1994.
  13. ^ "Roseanne Roseannadanna vs. Columbia School of Journalism"
  14. ^ Gilda Radner at the Internet Broadway Database
  15. ^ Hischak, Thomas S. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969–2000. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-512347-6.
  16. ^ a b Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, pg. 60.
  17. ^ Shales, Tom (2010). Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live. ISBN 0-316-73565-5. 
  18. ^ "Mark Twain on Coldest Winter". Snopes.com. 26 September 2007. Retrieved 8 June 2012. 
  19. ^ Song, Jenny. "America's Funny Girl". CR Magazine. Spring 2009.
  20. ^ Tom Shales, James Andrew Miller. ["Live from New York"] Live From New York 2002.
  21. ^ Wilder, Gene. "Why Did Gilda Die?". People June 3, 1991.
  22. ^ "Gilda Radner". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  23. ^ "Mike Myers - Biography". Talktalk.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-07-26. 
  24. ^ http://vimeo.com/82820975
  25. ^ Wilder, Gene. "Why Did Gilda Die?" People Magazine. 3 June 1991.
  26. ^ Squires, Sally. "Fighting Ovarian Cancer: Doctors Don't Know Who Is At Risk and Why." Washington Post. 30 May 1989.
  27. ^ Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry.
  28. ^ Deming, Mark. "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women". New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2012. 

External links[edit]