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

Early life[edit]Edit

Radner was born in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of Jewish parents Henrietta (née Dworkin), a legal secretary, and Herman Radner, a businessman. 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), and an older brother named Michael. She attended theUniversity Liggett School in Grosse Pointe. Radner wrote in her autobiography It's Always Something that toward the end of her life she, "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."

Radner was close to her father, who operated Detroit's Seville Hotel, where many nightclub performers and actors stayed while performing in the city. He took her on trips to New York to see Broadway shows. 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 he remained in that condition until his death two years later.

College[edit]Edit

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

Career[edit]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 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 LevyAndrea MartinVictor 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 BelushiRichard BelzerChevy ChaseBill MurrayBrian Doyle-Murray, and Rhonda Coullet.

Saturday Night Live[edit]Edit

Radner gained name recognition as one of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players", a member of the freshman group on the first season of Saturday Night Live. She was the first performer cast for the show. Between 1975 and 1980, she created such characters as obnoxious personal advice expert Roseanne Roseannadanna, "Baba Wawa", a parody of Barbara Walters, and Emily Litella, an elderly hearing-impaired woman who gave angry and misinformed editorial replies on "Weekend Update". Radner also parodied such celebrities as Lucille BallPatti Smith, and Olga Korbut in SNL sketches. She won an Emmy Award in 1978 for her work on SNL.

Radner battled bulimia during her time on the show. She once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center. She had a relationship with SNL castmate Bill Murray, with whom she had also worked at the National Lampoon, that ended badly. Few details of their relationship or its end were made public at the time. When Radner wrote It's Always Something, this is the only reference she made to 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 ..."

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

Alan Zweibel, who co-created the Roseanne Roseannadanna character and co-wrote all of Roseanne's dialogue, recalled that Radner, one of three original SNL cast members who stayed away from cocaine, chastised him for using it.

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

Broadway[edit]Edit

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

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 one of their own, consisting of trysts on their lunch hour. The show ran for over seven months.

Relationship with Gene WilderEdit

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." 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. The pair made a third film together, Haunted Honeymoon, released in 1986.

Illness[edit]Edit

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 false diagnoses, she learned that she had ovarian cancer on October 21, 1986. She suffered extreme physical and emotional pain during chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.

Remission[edit]Edit

After Radner was told she had gone into remission, she wrote It's Always Something (a catchphrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna), which included many details of her struggle with the illness. Life magazine did a March 1988 cover story on her illness, entitled "Gilda Radner's Answer to Cancer: Healing the Body with Mind and Heart." In 1988, Radner guest-starred onIt's Garry Shandling's Show on Showtime, to great 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 youhave?" Shandling's reply: "A very bad series of career moves... which, by the way, there's no cure for whatsoever." She also repeated on-camera Mark Twain's apocryphal saying, "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 rest of the network television season.

Death[edit]Edit

In the fall of 1988, after biopsies and a saline wash of her abdomen showed no signs of cancer, Radner was put on a maintenance chemotherapy treatment to prolong her remission, but later that same year, she learned that her cancer had returned after a routine blood test showed her levels of the tumor marker CA-125 had increased.[15] She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 17, 1989 for a CAT scan. Despite being fearful that she would never wake up, she was given a sedative but 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.

Gene Wilder had this to say 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.

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.

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 LiveSaturday Night Live personnel—including Lorne MichaelsPhil 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 onSNL)—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.

Legacy[edit]Edit

Wilder established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates (such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) and 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 had all died of ovarian cancer, and therefore they might have attacked the disease earlier.

Radner's death from ovarian cancer helped to raise awareness of early detection and the connection to familial epidemiology. 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). In 1996, Gene Wilder and Registry founder Steven Piver, one of Radner's medical consultants, publishedGilda'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." Many Gilda's Clubs have opened across the United States and in Canada. In 2009, Gilda's Club merged with another similar institution, The Wellness Community, under the new 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.

Awards and honors[edit]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]Edit

Television[edit]Edit

Year Title Role Notes
1974 Jack: A Flash Fantasy Jill of Hearts
1974 The Gift of Winter Nicely/Malicious/Narrator Voice Only
1974–1975 Dr. Zonk and the Zunkins - Voice Only
1975–1980 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 (a cameo role 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]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

Documentary

1980 First Family Gloria Link
1982 Hanky Panky Kate Hellman
1982 It Came from Hollywood Herself Documentary
1984 The Woman in Red Ms. Millner
1985 Movers & Shakers Livia Machado
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Vickie Pearle

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