Madeline Kahn

Madeline Kahn


9/29/1942, Boston, Massachusetts, USA



Birth Name

Madeline Gail Wolfson


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Hofstra graduate Madeline Kahn was trained for an operatic career, but found her most gainful employment in musical comedy and revue work. While reducing audiences to tears of laughter as a member of New York's Upstairs at the Downstairs satirical troupe, Kahn made her first appearance in the…more


Trivia and Quotes

  • Trivia

    • Mel Brooks once said, "She is one of the most talented people that ever lived. I mean, either in stand-up comedy, or acting, or whatever you want, you can't beat Madeline Kahn."

    • Eric Mendelson, director of Madeline's final film Judy Berlin (1999), said, "Madeline Kahn really was one of those people who when you stood around her, she gave off this unbelievable glow."

    • Madeline won a Tony award for her non-musical performance in Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosenzweig in 1992.

    • Madeline was always terrified of and avoided acting classes, but made herself attend the Warren Robertson Actors' Workshop for a few months out of self-proclaimed necessity.

    • Madeline remembered her stint as guest host on the NBC comedy series, Saturday Night Live, as "not a pleasant experience." Not only was she frightened of live TV, but aware of the cast's reputation for viciously snubbing hosts that didn't fit in, she kept to herself. The "clinical" approach she took to make a go of the show left her totally unaccepted by the Not Ready for Prime Time Players.

    • Madeline was reunited with High Anxiety (1979) director Mel Brooks and fellow castmates Cloris Leachman, Harvey Korman, Dom DeLuise, Howard Morris, and Ron Carey when she agreed to play Empress Nympho in History of the World: Part 1 in 1981.

    • Madeline, already nominated for Best Supporting Actress Oscars for both Paper Moon in 1973 and Blazing Saddles in 1974, had become a big screen success story in a mere two years since her film debut in What's Up, Doc? (1972).

    • Madeline portrayed an obliging telephone operator for a company named Dial-A-Deviate in one of her funniest sketches, which would be echoed years later in one of the most entertaining scenes in Mel Brooks' High Anxiety, in which she hears someone being strangled to death over the telephone, and mistakenly assumes that she is listening to a form of phone sex.

    • Madeline was a member of New York's Upstairs at the Downstairs satirical troupe during the late 1960s.

    • Madeline's death prompted her brother, Jeffrey Kahn, and her husband, John Hansbury, to dedicate a bench (#0157) to her located near the reservoir at West 87th Street in Central Park, New York City. Its inscription reads: "In Loving Memory of Madeline Kahn (1942-1999) A BRILLIANT ACTRESS AND LOVELY SOUL WHO LOVED THIS CITY AND THIS PARK."

    • Madeline was warned by a college instructor that her baby-talk way of speaking would hinder her acting career.

    • Madeline was born in Boston and grew up in New York on the Upper West Side in Queens.

    • Madeline was "invited" to leave the Broadway production of Betty Comden and Adolph Green's On the Twentieth Century after understudy Judy Kaye went on for the leading lady nine times. The role had been a grueling experience that all but destroyed Kahn's singing voice, but the withdrawal hurt her chances of having a career as a Broadway musical star.

    • Madeline was given a featured role in the 1970 Richard Rodgers-Martin Charnin musical Two By Two, which starred Danny Kaye. Kahn would later (1978) veto the idea of Kaye co-starring with her in the Broadway musical, On the Twentieth Century, a role that ultimately went to Tony Award-winner John Cullum.

    • Madeline performed in innovative absurdist playwright John Guare's Off-Broadway productions, Marco Polo Sings a Solo and Promenade (1977).

    • Madeline collaborated with director Mel Brooks to come up with her Young Frankenstein character Elizabeth: a mixture of Elsa Lancaster, Mae Clarke, Janette McDonald, Valerie Hobson, and her character form Paper Moon, Trixie Delight.

    • Madeline was a close friend of comedian Gilda Radner, who also succumbed to ovarian cancer.

    • Madeline singing the lyrics, 'Falling in love again,' from the song, "I'm Tired," as Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles (1974), with Lili given a chorus line of armed and helmeted German soldiers as backup was director Mel Brooks' admittedly using another opportunity to poke fun at the Nazis.

    • Madeline performed the role of Lily Garland in Betty Comden and Adolph Green's Broadway production of On the Twentieth Century in 1978. Her operatic vocal range won her the part over actress Lynn Redgrave, for whom the role was originally intended for, earning Kahn a Tony nomination at the season's end.

    • Madeline's critically-acclaimed performance as the fashion-fussy, seemingly ultra-conservative Elizabeth in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974) was barely five minutes long.

    • Madeline was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 1999. After undergoing aggressive chemotherapy treatments, she continued to act, performing as Pauline Fox on the CBS sitcom, Cosby. Unfortunately, Miss Kahn's cancer progressed rapidly, and she passed away in December of 1999, leaving behind her husband, John Hansbury.

    • Madeline's favorite actors to work with were Steve Martin and Gene Wilder.

    • Madeline described her relationship with director Mel Brooks as sensual, saying that he was like her dirty uncle.

    • Madeline's performance as Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles is ranked #31 in Premiere magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time (April 2006).

    • Madeline was a supporter of animal rights, she loved all animals, and donated funds and time to PETA.

    • Madeline co-hosted an AIDS benefit concert at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on January 10, 1998 with Nathan Lane. The title was Classical Action: Performing Arts Against Aids.

    • Madeline loved to sing, dance, read, and cook in her free time.

    • Madeline won a Drama Desk Award and a Tony nomination for her performance in David Rabes' The Boom Boom Room (1973). In 1978, she earned a second Tony nomination for her role in the Betty Comden and Adolph Green Broadway musical, On the Twentieth Century, and a third in 1989 for her role in Born Yesterday written by Garson Kanin.

    • Madeline's first major film appearance was her portrayal of Eunice Burns in What's Up, Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand, which was followed by her 1973 Oscar-nominated role as Trixie Delight in Paper Moon. She received her second Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination the next year for her performance as Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.

    • Madeline was like gold for director Mel Brooks. He started to use her in the 1974 hit Blazing Saddles. He was so impressed by her that he cast her in his next three movies: Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety and 1981's History of The World, Part 1.

    • Madeline was once inspired comedically by Lucille Ball, but after being hired to play Agnes Gooch in the 1974 movie version of Mame, she was fired on the first day she showed up for work. Ms. Ball, who was playing Mame, was not pleased with Kahn's physical appearance, citing artistic differences, as well. After Lucille Ball delivered a barrage of derogatory remarks regarding Method acting to Madeline, Kahn was asked to leave, and actress Jane Connell took over the role of Agnes Gooch.

    • Madeline landed her first professional lead in a special concert performance operetta, honoring Leonard Bernstien's 50th birthday titled Candide in 1968.

    • Madeline made her professional stage debut in Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968, a revue established to introduce new stars to Broadway, performing parodies of a singer imitating composers Kurt Weill and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

    • Madeline landed parts in How Now, Dow Jones and Promises, Promises in 1967. Unfortunately, both of her roles were written out before they hit the stage.

    • Madeline made her stage debut as a chorus girl in a revival of Kiss Me, Kate. This is when she adopted her stepfather's last name of Kahn.

    • Madeline taught public school briefly while auditioning for professional acting roles, in Levittown, New York.

    • Madeline acted in a variety of school performances, and in 1960 all of her hard work paid off with a scholarship to Hofstra University. She took advantage of the opportunity, and studied music, drama, and speech therapy. She graduated in 1964, with a degree in Speech Therapy.

    • Madeline started to act while still at the progressive boarding school she attended in 1952. Her mother Paula also started to pursue a career in acting the same year.

  • Quotes

    • Madeline: As an individual, I have always been hypersensitive to what I see going on in front of my eyes. I think, (eyes grow bigger) 'Would you look... I can't... Would you look at that!' I have always been that way. I feel as though I came from some other planet half the time. It's all so amazing to me what goes on.

    • Madeline: (about her contribution to the revival of the Broadway musical, 'Born Yesterday') It didn't work out the way I hoped it would. I wanted to take a new look at the play and focus on some of the values which weren't so important back in the forties, but which are now. My attitude was, let's find it, and it didn't turn out that way. I found new values in my own performance, but I wanted it to be true for the rest of the production.

    • Madeline: I've been in some movies that haven't worked and I knew that they were not good for me from the minute I read them. What I knew was that I needed to work and I knew it wasn't terrible. It wasn't embarrassing. It had some merit and some class, something going for it. If in fact, it was done to a tee, it could be alright. Very few things are done to a tee.

    • Madeline: Comedy is created when someone is trying very earnestly to do what he feels is the right thing to do at the moment.

    • Madeline: (about what makes live theater special) In theater, you get to do it [an entire role from point A to point Z] in one piece and you are in the moment and you get to explore yourself as an instrument. You don't get to do that in film.

    • Madeline: (about her role in 'Young Frankenstein' and the scene in which she is forcefully 'spirited away' by the Monster) What's funny about that? It's grotesque. I know when I'm in a Mel Brooks movie we're going to be doing some low, grotesque stuff. A lot of what makes sufficient numbers of us laugh, me included, is sometimes very broad, very low, grotesque, horrible stuff.

    • Madeline: Laughter is a strange response. I mean, what is it? It's a spasm of some kind! Is that always joy? It's very often discomfort. It's some sort of explosive reaction.

    • Madeline: (in an announcement to her fans at the beginning of November 1999) During the past year, I have been undergoing aggressive treatment for ovarian cancer. It is my hope that I might raise awareness of this awful disease and hasten the day that an effective test can be discovered to give women a fighting chance to catch this cancer at its earliest stage.

    • Madeline: There's lots of times I don't laugh at all when a lot of people are laughing. I'm someone who doesn't laugh a lot of the time. When I feel good and I'm in a certain energy level, I do laugh a lot.

    • Madeline: When I was in my teens, I spent some formative years in boarding school, which I didn't like very much. I use to hide in the rhododendron bushes and pretend I was lost.

    • Madeline: I would liked to be remembered for being liked. I always try to put my best foot forward, because I am glad to meet you, no matter who you are.

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  • A lovely person.

    I first saw her in her tv show "Oh Madeline" and thought she was really funny. Recently, I saw her in "Mixed Nuts" and she was good in that too. Something about her sing-songy voice and her deadpan humor was very appealing. She was a wonderful treat for this world.
  • Will be missed

    The first time I saw her was in the Clue movie, and she immediately became one of my favorite actresses. The last time I saw her was on the Cosby Show and when she voiced Gypsy in A Bug's Life. I was really really sad when she died. Why do my favorite people keep dying?! WHY?!