Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner
Gilda Radner

A photo of Radner taken for Saturday Night Live.
Born Gilda Susan Radner
June 28, 1946(1946-06-28)
Detroit, Michigan, United States
Died May 20, 1989(1989-05-20) (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California,
United States
Cause of death Ovarian cancer
Occupation Actress/Comedian
Years active 1973–1989
Spouse 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, best known as one of the original cast members of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1978.


Early life

Radner was born in Detroit, Michigan, 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. Radner wrote in her autobiography It's Always Something toward the end of her life, "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 he remained in that condition until his death two years later.[8]


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 Paris in 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.[5] Later, when details of Radner's eating disorder surfaced, Saltman wrote that he realized she had been in a quandary over the French food, but had no one with whom she could discuss her situation.[5]


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, Ontario, 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 and Brian Doyle-Murray.

Saturday Night Live

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.[6] Between 1975 and 1980, she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, an obnoxious woman with wild black hair whose trademark complaint, "It's always something--if it ain't one thing, it's another," gave her autobiography its title, and who would tell stories about the gross habits of celebrities on the show's "Weekend Update" news segment, inspired in name and appearance by Rose Ann Scamardella, a news anchor at WABC-TV in New York City. Other SNL characters included "Baba Wawa," a spoof of Barbara Walters (see also Barbara Walters' reaction to it), and Emily Litella, an elderly hearing-impaired woman who gave angry and misinformed editorial replies on "Weekend Update" on topics such as "violins on television," the "Eagle Rights Amendment," "presidential erections," "making Puerto Rico a 'steak'", "busting school children", and "protecting endangered feces."[6][10] Once corrected on her misunderstanding, Litella would end her segment with a polite "Never mind." But later on, she would answer Jane Curtin's frustration with a simple "Bitch!" Radner parodied such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Patti Smith, and Olga Korbut in SNL sketches. Radner won an Emmy Award in 1978 for her work on SNL.

Radner's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

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.[11] She had a relationship with SNL castmate Bill Murray, with whom she also had 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 ..."[12]

In 1979, incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she ultimately turned down.[9] 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.[13]

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."[11]


In 1979, Radner appeared on Broadway in a successful one-woman show entitled Gilda Radner - Live From New York.[14] The show featured racier material, 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-starring Paul 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.[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 one of their own, consisting of trysts on their lunch hour.[15] The show ran for over seven months.

Gene Wilder

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 with guitarist G.E. Smith deteriorated. Radner went on to make a second film, The Woman in Red, in 1984 with Wilder and their relationship grew. The two were married on September 18, 1984 in the south of France.[9] They had no children together. The pair made a third film together, Haunted Honeymoon, released in 1986.[9]


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.[9] She suffered extreme physical and emotional pain during chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.[9]


After Radner was told she had gone into remission, she wrote It's Always Something (a catchphrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna),[9] 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 on It's Garry Shandling's Show on Showtime, to great critical acclaim. When Shandling asked her why she had not been seen 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 also repeated on-camera Mark Twain's famous 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.


In late 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.[16] She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California on May 17, 1989 for a CAT scan. Because she was 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.[6]

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 gaps 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.[17]

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, Mike Myers and Phil Hartman, had not known she was so close to death. They scrapped one of their planned sketches and instead, Martin introduced a video clip of a 1978 sketch in which he and Radner parodied an old Hollywood romantic couple's dance. He cried during his introduction.


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.[citation needed]

Radner's death from ovarian cancer helped to raise awareness of early detection and the connection to familial epidemiology.[18] 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).[19] 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 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.

Awards and honors

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 W. Houston Street in New York City and Lombard Street in Toronto have both been re-named "Gilda Radner Way." Chester Street in White Plains, NY was also renamed Gilda Radner Way.



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
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


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 Documentary
1984 The Woman in Red Ms. Millner
1985 Movers & Shakers Livia Machado
1986 Haunted Honeymoon Vickie Pearle

See also

  • Friends of Gilda


  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. ^ Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 99
  8. ^ Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 99
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  10. ^ The Emily Litella character began when Chevy Chase anchored Weekend Update, and Litella mistakenly called him "Cheddar Cheese".
  11. ^ a b Hill, Doug and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree Books, a division of William Morrow, Inc. 1986.
  12. ^ Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 100-101.
  13. ^ Zweibel, Alan. Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner. New York: Villard, 1994.
  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 0195123476.
  16. ^ Song, Jenny. "America's Funny Girl". CR Magazine. Spring 2009.
  17. ^ "Gilda Radner". Find A Grave. Retrieved 2009-03-11. 
  18. ^ Squires, Sally. "Fighting Ovarian Cancer: Doctors Don't Know Who Is At Risk and Why." Washington Post. 30 May 1989.
  19. ^ Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry.

External links

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