America’s Sweetheart,” that’s how one publication described Gilda Radner at the peak of her career on the comedy series, Saturday Night Live, a title few performers, comic or otherwise, have so aptly been worthy of.
Gilda, an American comedienne and actress, born in 1946 in Detroit, Michigan to a well-to-do family, renounced the usual lifestyle associated with her background and opted for a career in comedy.
After dropping out of the University of Michigan where she was studying drama, Gilda moved to Canada and made her stage debut in the 1972 Toronto production of Godspell with another soon-to-be Saturday Night Live cast member, John Belushi. After a brief stint with Second City, an improvisational comedy troupe, they both moved to New York where they were featured players on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a popular program syndicated to some 600 U.S. radio stations from 1973 to 1975.
Gilda was the first person to be cast for Saturday Night Live, which premiered in 1975, and shot to stardom as one of the original members of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. During her five year run on the show, she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, an aggressively obnoxious news commentator; Baba Wawa, a spoof of journalist, Barbara Walters; the slightly deaf and eternally confused Emily Litella; Lisa Loopner, the sinus-afflicted teenage nerd; Jewish-American princess, Rhonda Weiss; Judy Miller, an over-imaginative little girl who entertains herself in her room by putting on shows and commercials and dresses up in costumes; and Candy Slice, a wickedly funny take-off on punk singer, Patti Smith, just to name a few. She also famously parodied such celebrities as Olga Korbut, Annette Funicello, and Lucille Ball, to whom her comic timing and knack for physical comedy were often compared. In 1978, Gilda won an Emmy Award for her efforts, as well as the love and respect of her fans and coworkers.
In her final season of Saturday Night Live, Gilda appeared on Broadway in her highly acclaimed one-woman show, Gilda Radner- Live From New York, which was later (and not so successfully) produced as a concert film called Gilda Live (1981). During production, she married Saturday Night Live band front man and guitarist, G.E. Smith. Not long into the marriage, Gilda met comic actor, Gene Wilder, on the set of Buck Henry’s Hanky Panky, a movie they were filming together. Gilda fell head over heels, and she and Smith were soon amicably divorced.
Gilda went on to make a second film with Wilder, The Woman in Red, released in 1984. On September 18th of that year, the two were married in a small ceremony in the south of France. Gilda created her own bridal attire: a straw hat with flowers tucked in the ribbon on the black rim with her hair piled underneath it, a lacy, white silk blouse, and long, gray culottes, black tights, and black ballet shoes– gray because it was her second marriage. Sparkle, her Yorkshire terrier, was also in attendance, as the “bridesdog,” as Gilda referred to her, and wore a straw hat too, with pink streamers.
Gilda was at her happiest: she and Gene were anxious to start a family, and, through his support and with the help of therapy, she finally found the strength to attack the bulimia she’d been suffering from since the early seventies. Unfortunately, their plans to have a child met with two miscarriages.
During production of their third movie together (Haunted Honeymoon 1986), Gilda experienced severe fatigue and upper leg pain and was treated for Epstein-Barr virus. When her health continued to deteriorate, a CAT scan was ordered and a malignancy was confirmed. On October 24, 1986, Gilda Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After two years of cancer therapy (surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment), she was told she had gone into remission. She wrote a book: It’s Always Something, an autobiographical account of her struggles with cancer, in hopes of helping others living in the world of medication and uncertainty. Gilda became an icon for public awareness of both detection and treatment of ovarian cancer.
Gilda returned to the small screen in 1988 and won an Emmy nomination for guest starring as herself on the HBO TV comedy, It’s the Gary Shandling Show, which would end up to be her final television appearance. That same year, she planned to host an episode of Saturday Night Live, but a writers’ strike caused the cancellation of the season. In the spring, it was sadly discovered her cancer had recurred and spread to other areas of her body. She was admitted to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for another CAT scan. Fearing she wouldn’t wake up from the procedure, Gilda was given a sedative to reduce her anxiety. She fell into a coma, and never regained consciousness. Gilda passed away three days later, on May 20, 1989 at 6:20 in the morning with her husband at her side.
Gilda Radner: a little slip of a thing with ordinary girl-next-door looks, a Cocker Spaniel hairstyle, and twinkling eyes– “American’s Sweetheart,” impossibly dead at age 42. She never had time to find the post-Saturday Night Live fame which surely would not have escaped her. But her charming innocence, joyfulness, and subversive humor will not be forgotten. Gilda Radner remains forever loveable, forever young, and absolutely, unspeakably funny.