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Madeline Kahn

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Madeline Kahn
Kahn in 1983
Madeline Gail Wolfson

(1942-09-29)September 29, 1942
Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.
DiedDecember 3, 1999(1999-12-03) (aged 57)
New York City, U.S.
EducationHofstra University
  • Actress
  • comedian
  • singer
Years active1964–1999
John Hansbury
(m. 1999)

Madeline Gail Kahn (née Wolfson; September 29, 1942 – December 3, 1999) was an American actress, comedian, and singer. She is known for comedic roles in films directed by Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks, including What's Up, Doc? (1972), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World, Part I (1981), and her Academy Award–nominated role in Paper Moon (1973).

Kahn made her Broadway debut in Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968, and received Tony Award nominations for the play In the Boom Boom Room in 1974 and for the original production of the musical On the Twentieth Century in 1978. She starred as Madeline Wayne on the short-lived sitcom Oh Madeline (1983–84) and won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1987 for an ABC Afterschool Special. She received a third Tony Award nomination for the revival of the play Born Yesterday in 1989, before winning the 1993 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the comedy The Sisters Rosensweig. Her other film appearances included The Cheap Detective (1978), City Heat (1984), Clue (1985), and Nixon (1995).

Early life and education[edit]

Madeline Kahn in Hofstra University's 1964 yearbook.

Kahn was born in Boston, the daughter of Bernard B. Wolfson, a garment manufacturer, and his wife Freda (née Goldberg).[1][2] She was raised in a nonobservant Jewish family.[3] Her parents divorced when Kahn was two, and she moved with her mother to New York City. In 1953, Freda married Hiller Kahn, who later adopted Madeline; Freda eventually changed her own name to Paula Kahn.[2] Madeline Kahn had two half-siblings: Jeffrey (from her mother's marriage to Kahn) and Robyn (from her father's second marriage).[4]

In 1948, Kahn was sent to the progressive Manumit School, a boarding school in Bristol, Pennsylvania. During that time, her mother pursued her acting dream. Kahn soon began acting herself and performed in a number of school productions.[5] In 1960, she graduated from Martin Van Buren High School[6] in Queens, New York, and then earned a drama scholarship to Hofstra University on Long Island. At Hofstra, she studied drama, music, and speech therapy. Kahn graduated from Hofstra in 1964 with a degree in speech therapy.[5] She was a member of a local sorority on campus, Delta Chi Delta. [citation needed] She later studied singing in New York City with Beverley Peck Johnson.[7]


When asked on television by Kitty Carlisle and Charles Nelson Reilly how she began the opera aspect of her career, Kahn said:

It's so hard to determine exactly when I began or why, singing. The Muse was definitely not in attendance. I'll tell you exactly.[8]

To earn money while a college student, Kahn was a singing waitress at a Bavarian restaurant named Bavarian Manor, a Hofbräuhaus in New York's Hudson Valley. She sang musical comedy numbers during shows.[9]

There was a really important customer there, a big Italian man, who shouted out to me 'Sing Madame Butterfly', and of course he didn't mean the whole opera. He meant that one very popular aria, "Un Bel Di". So, if I was to come back the next summer to earn more money during the next year, I'd better know that aria. You know, and I didn't know anything about it; I just learned that one aria and a few others and then one thing led to another and I studied that, and I discovered that I could sing that, sort of, that way. But my first actual thing that I did was Candide for Leonard Bernstein's 50th birthday at Philharmonic Hall[10]—at the time that's what it was called.[11] And I don't know if that was an opera, but it was very hard to sing. I actually have done Musetta in La Bohème a long time ago in Washington, DC. I mean, utterly terrifying. I mean, basically I feel as though I was asked to do it and I did it.[9]


Kahn began auditioning for professional acting roles shortly after her graduation from Hofstra; on the side, she briefly taught public school.[5] Just before adopting the professional name Madeline Kahn (Kahn was her stepfather's surname), she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in a revival of Kiss Me, Kate,[12] which led her to join Actors' Equity. Her part in the musical How Now, Dow Jones was written out before the 1967 show reached Broadway.[13]

In 1968, Kahn performed her first professional lead in a special concert performance of the operetta Candide in honor of Leonard Bernstein's 50th birthday.[5] She made her Broadway debut in 1968 with Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968[14] and also appeared off-Broadway in the musical Promenade.[15]

1970s and 1980s[edit]

Kahn appeared in two Broadway musicals in the 1970s: a featured role in Richard Rodgers' 1970 Noah's Ark-themed show Two by Two[12] (singing a high C)[5] and a lead turn as Lily Garland in 1978's On the Twentieth Century.[12] She left (or, reportedly, was fired from) the latter show early in its run, yielding the role to understudy Judy Kaye.[16][17] She starred in a 1977 Town Hall semi-staged concert version of She Loves Me (opposite Barry Bostwick and original London cast member Rita Moreno).[5][18]

Kahn's film debut was in the 1968 short De Düva (The Dove). Her feature debut was as Ryan O'Neal's character's hysterical fiancée in Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? (1972) starring Barbra Streisand.[19] Her film career continued with Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.[12]

Kahn was cast in the role of Agnes Gooch in the 1974 film Mame, but star Lucille Ball fired Kahn due to artistic differences. (Several of Ball's biographies say Kahn was eager to be released from the role so that she could join the cast of Blazing Saddles, a film about to go into production. Kahn stated in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose that she was fired.[20])

A close succession of comedies—Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and High Anxiety (1977)—were all directed by Mel Brooks,[12] who was able to bring out the best of Kahn's comic talents.[21] Their last collaboration was 1981's History of the World, Part I. For Blazing Saddles, she was again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.[12] In the April 2006 issue of Premiere, her performance in Blazing Saddles as Lili von Shtupp was selected as number 74 on its list of the 100 greatest performances of all time.[22]

In 1975, Kahn again teamed with Bogdanovich to co-star with Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd in the musical At Long Last Love. The film was a critical and financial disaster, but Kahn largely escaped blame for the failure. At Long Last Love was one of three films in which Kahn worked alongside the character actress Eileen Brennan, the other two being The Cheap Detective and Clue. In that same year, she again teamed with Gene Wilder, this time for his comedy The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. In 1978, Kahn's comic screen persona reached another peak with her portrayal of Mrs. Montenegro in Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective (1978),[12] a spoof of both Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, directed by Robert Moore. That role was followed by a cameo in 1979's The Muppet Movie.[23]

Kahn's roles were primarily comedic rather than dramatic, although the 1970s found her originating roles in two plays that had elements of both: 1973's In the Boom Boom Room on Broadway[24] and 1977's Marco Polo Sings a Solo off-Broadway.[25]

After her success in Brooks' films, Kahn appeared in a number of films in the 1980s. She played Mrs. White in 1985's Clue,[26] First Lady Constance Link in the 1980 spoof First Family, a twin from outer space in the Jerry Lewis sci-fi comedy Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), the love interest of Burt Reynolds in the crime comedy City Heat (1984), and Draggle in the animated film My Little Pony: The Movie (1986). She voiced the character Gussie Mausheimer in the animated film An American Tail. According to animator Don Bluth, she was cast because he was "hoping she would use a voice similar to the one she used as a character in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles."[27]

In 1983, Kahn starred in her own short-lived TV sitcom, Oh Madeline,[5] which ended after one season due to poor ratings. In 1986, she starred in ABC Comedy Factory's pilot of Chameleon, which never aired on the fall schedule.[28] In 1987, Kahn won a Daytime Emmy award for her performance in the ABC Afterschool Special Wanted: The Perfect Guy.[5]

Kahn returned to the stage as Billie Dawn in the 1989 Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, for which she was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.[29]


Kahn played the mother of Molly Ringwald's character in the 1990 film Betsy's Wedding,[30] and shortly after she recorded a voice for the animated movie The Magic 7, which, as of 2023, has not been released.[31] In 1994, she portrayed suicide hotline worker Blanche Munchnik in the holiday farce Mixed Nuts. Kahn played the corrupt mayor in a benefit concert performance of Anyone Can Whistle in 1995.[32] She appeared in Nixon as Martha Beall Mitchell (1995).[33]

On stage, Kahn played Dr. Gorgeous in Wendy Wasserstein's 1993 Broadway play The Sisters Rosensweig, a role for which she earned a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.[34] She was a member of the cast of Cosby (1996–1999) as Pauline, the eccentric friend and neighbor.[5]

Kahn participated in a workshop reading of Dear World at the Roundabout Theatre Company in June 1998, reading the part of Gabrielle.[35] She also voiced Gypsy the moth in A Bug's Life (1998).[36]

Kahn received good reviews for her Chekhovian turn in the 1999 independent movie Judy Berlin, her final film.[37] Before her passing, she also voiced Mrs. Shapiro on the first two episodes of Little Bill, the second of which ("Just a Baby" / "The Camp Out") was dedicated to her memory. Kathy Najimy succeeded her in the role following Kahn's death.

Illness and death[edit]

Kahn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1998. She underwent treatment, continued to work on Cosby, and married John Hansbury in summer 1999.[38] However, the disease spread rapidly, and she died on December 3, 1999, at age 57.[39]

She was cremated on December 6, at Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey.[40] A bench dedicated to her memory was erected in Central Park by her husband John and her brother Jeffrey.[40] The bench is located near the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir on West 87th Street.[40]



Year Title Roles Notes
1968 De Düva (The Dove) Sigrid Short
1972 What's Up, Doc? Eunice Burns
1973 Paper Moon Trixie Delight
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler Schoolteacher
1974 Blazing Saddles Lili Von Shtupp
Young Frankenstein Elizabeth Benning
1975 At Long Last Love Kitty O'Kelly
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother Jenny Hill
1976 Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood Estie Del Ruth
1977 High Anxiety Victoria Brisbane
1978 The Cheap Detective Mrs. Montenegro
1979 The Muppet Movie El Sleezo Patron
1980 Simon Dr. Cynthia Mallory
Happy Birthday, Gemini Bunny Weinberger
Wholly Moses! The Witch
First Family Mrs. Constance Link
1981 History of the World, Part I Empress Nympho
1982 Slapstick of Another Kind Eliza Swain / Lutetia Swain
1983 Yellowbeard Betty
Scrambled Feet Madeline
1984 City Heat Caroline Howley
1985 Clue Mrs. White
1986 My Little Pony: The Movie Draggle Voice
An American Tail Gussie Mausheimer
1990 Betsy's Wedding Lola Hopper
1994 Mixed Nuts Mrs. Munchnik
1995 Nixon Martha Mitchell
1998 A Bug's Life Gypsy Voice
1999 Judy Berlin Alice Gold Final film role


Year Show Role Notes
1972 Harvey Nurse Ruth Kelly TV movie
1973 Adam's Rib Doris 2 episodes
1975 The Carol Burnett Show Mavis Danton Episode: #10.4
1976–1995 Saturday Night Live Host 3 episodes
1977 The Muppet Show Special Guest Star Episode 209[41]
1978–1997 Sesame Street Herself / various 12 episodes
1981 Fridays Host Episode 35
1983–1984 Oh Madeline Madeline Wayne 19 episodes
1986 Comedy Factory CTV Violet Kinsey Episode 6: "Chameleon"
1987–1988 Mr. President Lois Gullickson 14 episodes
1988 Sesame Street, Special Herself TV special
1991 Road to Avonlea Pigeon Plumtree Episode: "It's Just a Stage"
1992 Lucky Luke Esperanza Season 1, episode 1[42]
For Richer, for Poorer Billie TV movie
1993 Monkey House Grace Anderson Episode: "More Stately Mansions"[43][44]
Dr. Seuss Video Classics: Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book Narrator VHS special
1995 New York News Nan Chase 13 episodes
1996 Ivana Trump's For Love Alone Sabrina TV movie
London Suite Sharon Semple TV movie[45]
1996–1999 Cosby Pauline Fox 84 episodes
1999 Little Bill Mrs. Shapiro (voice) Ep: "Just a Baby/The Campout"


Year Production Role Venue
1965 Kiss Me, Kate Chorister Concert, Off-Broadway
Just for Openers Performer Upstairs at the Downstairs, Off-Broadway[46]
1966 Mixed Doubles
Below the Belt
1967 How Now, Dow Jones Performer (replacement) Lunt-Fontaine Theatre, Broadway
1968 Candide Cunegonde New York Concert, Off-Broadway
New Faces of 1968 Performer Booth Theatre, Broadway
1969 Promenade Servant Promenade Theatre, Off-Broadway
1970 Two by Two Goldie Imperial Theatre, Broadway
1973 In the Boom Boom Room Chrissy Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Broadway
1977 She Loves Me Amalia Balash Town Hall Concert
1978 Marco Polo Sings a Solo Dianna McBride The Public Theatre, Off-Broadway
On the Twentieth Century Lily Garland St. James Theatre, Broadway
1983 Blithe Spirit Madame Arcati Santa Fe Festival Theater[47]
1985 What's Wrong with this Picture? Shirley Manhattan Theatre Club, Broadway
1989 Born Yesterday Billie Dawn 46th Street Theatre, Broadway
1992 Hello, Dolly! Dolly Limited Tour[48]
Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall Performer Concert at Carnegie Hall[49]
1993 The Sisters Rosensweig Gorgeous Teitelbaum Ethel Barrymore Theatre, Broadway
1995 Anyone Can Whistle Cora Concert at Carnegie Hall
1998 Dear World Gabrielle Roundabout Theatre Company Workshop[50]

Awards and nominations[edit]

  • Year given is year of ceremony
Year Award Category Work Result Ref
1973 Golden Globe Award New Star Actress of the Year What's Up, Doc? Nominated [51]
1974 Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Paper Moon Nominated [51]
Academy Award Best Supporting Actress Nominated [52]
Drama Desk Award Outstanding Performance In the Boom Boom Room Won
Tony Award Best Actress in a Play Nominated
1975 Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Young Frankenstein Nominated [51]
Academy Award Best Supporting Actress Blazing Saddles Nominated [52]
1978 Tony Award Best Actress in a Musical On the Twentieth Century Nominated
1984 Golden Globe Award Best Actress - Television Musical or Comedy Oh Madeline Nominated [51]
People's Choice Award Favorite Female Performer in a New TV Series Won
1987 Daytime Emmy Award Outstanding Performer in Children's Programming ABC Afterschool Special: Wanted: The Perfect Guy Won
1989 Tony Award Best Actress in a Play Born Yesterday Nominated
1993 Drama Desk Award Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play The Sisters Rosensweig Won
Tony Award Best Actress in a Play Won
Honorary awards
2003 American Theatre Hall of Fame Inductee [53]


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  2. ^ a b William V. Madison (June 13, 2012). "Billevesées: Progress Report 14: When Hiller Met Paula". Retrieved April 26, 2013.
  3. ^ Specter, Michael (April 8, 1993). "AT HOME WITH: Madeline Kahn; Funny? Yes, but Someone's Got to Be". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010.
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  7. ^ Anthony Tommasini (January 22, 2001). "Beverley Peck Johnson, 96, Voice Teacher". The New York Times.
  8. ^ "Madeleine Kahn". Placenote. Retrieved August 25, 2020.
  9. ^ a b Madeline Kahn on her opera career on YouTube (video clip).
  10. ^ Online programme Candide November 10, 1968 [1] retrieved 2013-10-17.
  11. ^ audio clip Philharmonic Hall performance, Nov 1968 Video on YouTube retrieved 2013-10-17.
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  13. ^ Mandelbaum, Ken. Not Since Carrie August 15, 1992, Macmillan,ISBN 1466843276, p. 201.
  14. ^ New Faces Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  15. ^ Promenade Production Archived February 13, 2015, at the Wayback Machine lortel.org, accessed February 13, 2015.
  16. ^ The New York Times, April 25, 1978, p. 46.
  17. ^ Corry, John. "Broadway; Terrence McNally has a comedy about stage due in fall", The New York Times, May 5, 1978, p. C2.
  18. ^ Madison, William V. She Loves Me Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life, (books.google.com), Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2015, ISBN 1617037621
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  20. ^ "An interview with Madeline Kahn". Charlie Rose. Archived from the original on May 24, 2012. Retrieved May 4, 2012.
  21. ^ "Kahn Biography" tcm.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  22. ^ "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time". Premiere Magazine. March 27, 2006.
  23. ^ "The Muppet Movie (1979)". Henson.com. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  24. ^ In the Boom Boom Room Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  25. ^ Marco Polo Sings a Solo Production Archived February 13, 2015, at the Wayback Machine lortel.org, accessed February 13, 2015.
  26. ^ Maslin, Janet. "Review, 'Clue' " The New York Times, December 13, 1985.
  27. ^ "Don Bluth American Tail". Cataroo.com. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  28. ^ Terrace, Vincent. Chamelon Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010, 2d ed., McFarland, 2008, ISBN 0786486414, p. 175.
  29. ^ Born Yesterday Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  30. ^ "Betsy's Wedding Cast and Crew" tcm.com, accessed March 28, 2015.
  31. ^ " The Magic 7 Cast and Crew" tcm.com, accessed March 28, 2015.
  32. ^ " "Anyone Can Whistle' Concert, 1995" sondheimguide.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  33. ^ Nixon Cast nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  34. ^ "Madeline Kahn, Credits and Awards" playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  35. ^ " Dear World Reading" roundabouttheatre.org, accessed February 14, 2015.
  36. ^ A Bug's Life Cast nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  37. ^ Holden, Stephen. Judy Berlin Overview nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015.
  38. ^ Variety, p. 7, December 6, 1999.
  39. ^ Honan, William H. (December 4, 1999). "Madeline Kahn, Comedian Of Film Fame, Dies at 57". The New York Times. Retrieved May 14, 2010.
  40. ^ a b c Scott Wilson (August 19, 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed. McFarland. p. 390. ISBN 978-1-4766-2599-7.
  41. ^ Garlen, Jennifer C.; Graham, Anissa M. (2009). Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets. McFarland & Company. p. 218. ISBN 978-0786442591.
  42. ^ " Lucky Luke Cast" imdb.com, accessed February 14, 2015.
  43. ^ Goudas, John N. A Look Inside Vonnegut's 'Monkey House'" LA Times, February 21, 1993.
  44. ^ Monkey House Cast and Episodes" imdb.com, accessed February 14, 2015.
  45. ^ Koehler, Robert. "NBC Puts 'London Suite' Through a 'Seinfeld' Filter" LA Times, September 14, 1996.
  46. ^ "Lortel Archives-The Internet Off-Broadway Database". Lortel.org. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  47. ^ "Madeline Kahn of Manhattan Is Now on a Santa Fe High and That Town's Blithest Spirit" People Magazine, accessed May 17, 2020.
  48. ^ "Hello, Dolly!, Tour" ovrtur.com, accessed February 14, 2015.
  49. ^ "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall" Archived November 7, 2011, at the Wayback Machine sondheimguide.com, accessed February 14, 2015.
  50. ^ " Dear World 1998 Workshop Cast" broadwayworld.com, accessed February 14, 2015.
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  53. ^ "Theater honors put women in the spotlight". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved February 12, 2014.

External links[edit]