Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner

Radner sitting in Wilder's lap, smiling

Radner with her husband, Gene Wilder, in the film Haunted Honeymoon, 1986
Born Gilda Susan Radner
(1946-06-28)June 28, 1946
Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Died May 20, 1989(1989-05-20) (aged 42)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
Nationality American
Alma mater University of Michigan
Occupation Comedian, actress
Years active 1973–1989
Known for Original cast member of Saturday Night Live
Awards Emmy Award
1977 Saturday Night Live
Grammy Award
1990 (posthumously)

Gilda Susan Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989) was an American comedian, actress, and one of seven original cast members of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live. In her routines, Radner specialized in broad and obnoxious parodies of television stereotypes such as annoying advice specialists and news anchors. She also portrayed those characters in her successful one-woman show on Broadway in 1979.

Radner died from ovarian cancer in 1989, and her life and legacy from SNL established her as an iconic figure in the history of American comedy. Her widower, Gene Wilder, carried out her personal wish that information about her illness would help other cancer victims.

Early life

Radner was born in Detroit, Michigan, to Jewish parents, Henrietta (née Dworkin), a legal secretary, and Herman Radner, a businessman.[1][2] Through her mother, she was a second cousin of business executive Steve Ballmer.[3] 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),[4] and an older brother named Michael. She attended the exclusive University Liggett School in Detroit (it began its relocation to Grosse Pointe later that year). 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."[5]

Radner was close to her father, who operated Detroit's Seville Hotel, where many nightclub performers and actors stayed while performing in the city.[6] He took her on trips to New York to see Broadway shows.[7] As Radner wrote in It's Always Something, when she was 12, her father developed a brain tumor, and the symptoms began so suddenly that he told people his eyeglasses were too tight.[8] Within days, he was bedridden and unable to communicate, and remained in that condition until his death two years later.[8]

College and eating disorder

Radner graduated from Liggett and enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1964. While at the university, she made a lifelong platonic friend of fellow student David Saltman, who wrote a biography of her after her death. Saltman and his girlfriend took Radner along on a trip to Paris in the summer of 1966. According to Saltman, he was so affectionate with his girlfriend that they left Radner to fend for herself during much of their sightseeing.[6] Radner was nervous and upset about gaining weight from the French cuisine, but Saltman paid little attention at the time.[6]

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,[9] Saltman had a strong emotional reaction. He realized that in 1966 she had been unable to discuss with anyone her eating disorder and its impact on their trip to France.[6] (The book by Hill and Weingrad was published and received much media coverage during a period when Radner was consulting various doctors in Los Angeles about her symptoms of illness that turned out to be cancer.)


In Ann Arbor, Radner began her broadcasting career as the weather girl for college radio station WCBN-FM, but dropped out in her senior year[10] to follow her boyfriend, a Canadian sculptor named Jeffrey Rubinoff, to Toronto, where she made her professional acting debut in the 1972 production of Godspell with future stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber, Martin Short, and Paul Shaffer. 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

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.[7] She co-wrote much of the material that she performed, and collaborated with Alan Zweibel of the show's writing staff on sketches that highlighted her recurring characters.[11] Between 1975 and 1980, she created characters such as obnoxious personal advice expert Roseanne Roseannadanna and "Baba Wawa", a parody of Barbara Walters. After Radner's death, Walters stated in an interview that Radner was the "first person to make fun of news anchors, now it's done all the time."[12] Her lampooning of news anchors did owe something to Monty Python, however, who started doing that several years before Saturday Night Live.

"Of the three female cast members [SNL], Gilda Radner made the deepest impact. There is hardly a female sketch comic today who does not claim Radner as an inspiration for her comedy career."

Yael Kohen,
author, We Killed: The rise of Women in American Comedy[13][14]

She also played the character Emily Litella, an elderly hearing-impaired woman who gave angry and misinformed editorial replies on "Weekend Update".[7] 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. In Rolling Stone magazine's February 2015 appraisal of all 141 SNL cast members to date, Radner was ranked ninth in importance. "[Radner was] the most beloved of the original cast," they wrote. "In the years between Mary Tyler Moore and Seinfeld's Elaine, Radner was the prototype for the brainy city girl with a bundle of neuroses."[15]

Radner battled bulimia while on the show. 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 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 ..."[16]

In 1979, incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she turned down.[10] 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.[11]

While in character as Roseannadanna, Radner gave the commencement address to the graduating class at the Columbia School of Journalism in 1979.[17]

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."[9]

Work in theater, a record album and her first movie

In 1979, Radner appeared on Broadway in a successful one-woman show entitled Gilda Radner - Live From New York.[18] 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 the movie was released in theaters nationwide in 1980 with poor results. A soundtrack album was unsuccessful. During the Broadway 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.[10]

In the fall of 1980, after all original SNL cast members departed from the show, Radner began working with actor Sam Waterston in the Jean Kerr play, Lunch Hour. They played two people whose spouses are having an affair, and as a reaction they start their own relationship consisting of trysts on their lunch hour.[19] The show ran for more than seven months in various theaters in the United States, including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC. Newspaper critics including Tom Shales praised the play and Radner's performance in it.

Marriage to Gene Wilder

Radner met actor Gene Wilder on the set of the Sidney Poitier film Hanky Panky, when the two worked together making the film. She described their first meeting as "love at first sight".[10] 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 with Wilder, The Woman in Red, released in 1984, and their relationship grew. The two were married on September 18, 1984, in Saint-Tropez.[10] The pair made a third film together, Haunted Honeymoon, released in 1986.[10] They remained married until her death in 1989.


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. For a period of 10 months, doctors, most of them in Los Angeles, gave her several diagnoses that all turned out to be wrong as she continued to experience pain.[10]

During the 10 months, she faced hardships such as the publication of the highly publicized book about Saturday Night Live by Hill and Weingrad, which provided many details about her eating disorder,[9][10] as well as the financial failure of Haunted Honeymoon. It grossed only $8,000,000 in the United States, entering the box office at number 8, then slipping to 14 the following week. As she wrote in It's Always Something, "On July 26 [1986], Haunted Honeymoon opened nationwide. It was a bomb. One month of publicity and the movie was only in the theaters for a week – a box-office disaster."[10]

Finally, on October 21, 1986, Radner was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer.[10][20] "She immediately underwent surgery and had a hysterectomy," said a 2009 article by Jenny Song in a magazine published by the American Association for Cancer Research.[20] "On Oct. 26," the article continued, "surgeons removed a grapefruit-size tumor from her abdomen." Then she began chemotherapy and radiation therapy treatment, as she wrote in It's Always Something, and the treatment caused extreme physical and emotional pain.[10]

After her diagnosis, the following issue of the National Enquirer ran the headline "Gilda Radner In Life-Death Struggle". Without asking for her comment,[10] 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 [her husband] Gene [Wilder] 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."[10]

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[21] when he heard she was leaving the party, Dan Aykroyd and he carried her 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 repeatedly.


After Radner was told that she had gone into remission, she wrote It's Always Something (a catchphrase of her character Roseanne Roseannadanna),[10] which included details of her struggle with the illness. Life 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 treatment for whatsoever." She repeated on-camera Mark Twain's apocryphal saying,[22] "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 delay of the network television season.


In September 1988, after tests showed no signs of cancer, Radner went on a maintenance chemotherapy treatment to prolong her remission, but three months later, in December, she learned the cancer had returned.[20] She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 17, 1989, to undergo a CT scan. She was given a sedative and went into a coma during the scan. She did not regain consciousness, and died three days later from ovarian cancer and complications due to intestinal perforation on May 20, 1989; Wilder was at her side.[7]

News of her death broke as Steve Martin was rehearsing to act as the guest host for that night's season finale of Saturday Night Live. The show's performers and crew, 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 how grave her situation was. Martin's planned opening monologue was scrapped; in its place Martin, in tears, introduced a video clip of a 1978 sketch in which Radner and he had parodied Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in a well-known dance routine from The Band Wagon.[24] After the clip, Martin said it reminded him of "how great she was and of how young I looked. Gilda, we miss you."


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

Wilder established the Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program[25] 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.[26]

Radner's death helped raise awareness of early detection of ovarian cancer and the connection to familial epidemiology.[27] 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).[28] 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.

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 by Joanna Bull, Radner's cancer psychotherapist, along with Radner's widower, Gene Wilder (also a cancer survivor) and broadcaster Joel Siegel (who later died after a long battle with cancer). The first club opened in New York City in 1995. The organization took its name from Radner's comment that cancer gave her "membership to an elite club I'd rather not belong to".[29] Radner's story can be read in her book, It's Always Something.[10]

Many Gilda's Clubs have opened across the United States and in Canada. In July 2009, Gilda's Club Worldwide merged with The Wellness Community, another established cancer support organization to create the Cancer Support Community (CSC), which was legally adopted in 2011.[30][31][32] As of 2012, more than 20 local affiliates of Gilda's Club were active. Although some local affiliates of Gilda's Club and The Wellness Community have retained their names, many affiliates have adopted the name Cancer Support Community following the merger.

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, Radner was featured in Making Trouble, a film tribute to female Jewish comedians, produced by the Jewish Women's Archive.[33] Radner makes two comic book appearances. DC Comics Young Love #122 in 1976 and Marvel Team-Up #74 from 1978.

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 Award 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, Kirk Road in Warminster, Pennsylvania, and Chester Avenue in White Plains, New York, have been 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
1974–75 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 The Muppet Show Herself 1 Episode
1978 Witch's Night Out Witch Voice Only
1979 Bob & Ray, Jane, Laraine & Gilda Herself
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
1978 All You Need Is Cash Mrs. Emily Pules TV film; Appeared in cameo role as a character who is cornered on the street for an interview about her memories of The Rutles
1979 Mr. Mike's Mondo Video Herself
1980 Animalympics Barbara Warbler/Brenda Springer/Coralee
Perrier/Tatiana Tushenko/Doree Turnell/The Contessa
TV film; Voice Only
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


  1. "Fighting for Life". Los Angeles Daily News. July 11, 1989.
  2. "Gilda Radner profile". Film Reference. Retrieved March 11, 2009.
  4. "Michaels and Radner talk SNL". 90 Minutes Live. CBC Television. February 2, 1978. Retrieved January 24, 2009.
  5. Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 97
  6. 1 2 3 4 Saltman, David. Gilda: An Intimate Portrait. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1992.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Hevesi, Dennis. "Gilda Radner, 42, Comic Original Of 'Saturday Night Live' Zaniness",, May 21, 1989.
  8. 1 2 Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, p. 99
  9. 1 2 3 Hill, Doug and Jeff Weingrad. Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live. New York: Beech Tree Books. 1986.
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
  11. 1 2 Zweibel, Alan. Bunny Bunny: Gilda Radner. New York: Villard, 1994.
  12. Barbara Walters being interviewed about Gilda Radner on YouTube
  13. Kohen, Yael. We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, Macmillan (2012) pp. 107-108
  14. "Funny Women", New York Times, Nov. 30, 2012
  15. Rolling Stone, issue 1229, February 26, 2015, p. 32.
  16. Radner, Gilda. It's Always Something. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989, pp. 100–101.
  17. "-journalist FIGHTclub".
  18. Gilda Radner at the Internet Broadway Database
  19. Hischak, Thomas S. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969–2000. Oxford University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-19-512347-6.
  20. 1 2 3 Song, Jenny. "America's Funny Girl",, Spring 2009.
  21. Shales, Tom (2010). Live From New York: An Uncensored History Of Saturday Night Live. ISBN 0-316-73565-5.
  22. "Mark Twain on Coldest Winter". September 26, 2007. Retrieved June 8, 2012.
  23. "Mike Myers biography". Retrieved July 26, 2014.
  24. Martin & Radner,; accessed March 20, 2015. Archived May 30, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
  25. "Hereditary Cancer Program (Gilda Radner Hereditary Cancer Program) - Cedars-Sinai".
  26. Wilder, Gene. "Why Did Gilda Die?" People Magazine, June 3, 1991.
  27. Squires, Sally. "Fighting Ovarian Cancer: Doctors Don't Know Who Is At Risk and Why", Washington Post, May 30, 1989.
  28. Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry website; accessed March 19, 2015.
  29. "Gilda's Club Twin Cities: Who We Are". Website. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  30. "Wellness Community & Gilda's Club May Merge". Oncology Times vol 31, Issue 7. pp. 8–10. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  31. McClure, Susan (December 14, 2009). "Gilda's Club and The Wellness Community Join Forces". Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  32. "Merging to Increase Mission Impact". The NonProfit Times. Archived from the original on December 7, 2012. Retrieved November 28, 2012.
  33. Deming, Mark. "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women". New York Times. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
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