RADNER, GILDA (1946–1989) Comic, Actress

A gifted comedian with a talent for creating lovable characters, Gilda Radner was born into an affluent family in Detroit, Michigan, on June 28, 1946. Her father earned his fortune smuggling alcohol into the United States from Canada during Prohibition. Among his subsequent investments was a hotel popular with performers such as Frank Sinatra and George Burns when they visited Detroit. Gilda had a tense relationship with her mother, especially as she began to gain weight as a young child. At 10, she was given Dexedrine, the first of many diet aids Radner would use during her life.

In 1960, her father died of brain cancer, leaving Gilda a substantial fortune. After high school, she attended the University of Michigan, where she studied drama for six years without graduating. She then moved to Toronto and rifted into a show business career. Radner worked as a children’s clown for several years, before appearing in a production of  Godspell. Also in the cast were Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Andrea Martin—all of whom, like Radner, would later achieve fame in television sketch comedy.

Radner soon landed a spot in Second City, a Toronto improvisational comedy troupe. Based on her Second City work, Lorne Michaels, the producer of a new, late-night variety series, Saturday Night Live, hired Radner as the show’s first cast member in 1975. After a rocky first season, Saturday Night Live became a solid hit and made Radner a star. Among her most popular characters were Emily Litella, a hard-of-hearing television editorialist; Lisa Loopner, a hopelessly gawky high school nerd; and Roseanne Roseannadanna, a commentator given to making repulsive observations about everyday life. Unlike the often aggressive comedy of male cast members such as John Belushi and Dan Akroyd, Radner’s bits always contained an affection for the characters she portrayed. In addition to her gentle humor, Radner won over audiences with an almost waifiike vulnerability.  Saturday Night Live writer Alan Zweibel once described Radner’s appeal: “You felt like you knew her. She was a star, but she was your sister.”

Radner won an Emmy Award in 1978 for her work on Saturday Night Live. She also appeared in a Broadway show—Gilda Radner Live From New York (1979)—featuring her favorite characters. Radner left the cast of Saturday Night Live in 1980, the same year she married the show’s bandleader, G. E. Smith. They were divorced two years later. Radner tried to make the move from television to movies but had limited success. She appeared in First Family (1980) and  It Came from Hollywood (1982), both box-office failures. On the set of Hanky Panky (1982), she met actor Gene Wilder. The two married in France in 1984 and appeared in two more films together,  The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). After feeling ill for nearly a year, Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986.

Chemotherapy and radiation treatments temporarily put her illness in remission. She wrote of her struggle with cancer in her 1989 autobiography, It’s Always Something, which she described as a “seriously funny” book. She also founded Gilda’s Friends, a support group for cancer patients. In 1988, she made her last onscreen performance playing herself in an episode of  It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, for which she received an Emmy nomination. Gilda Radner died in Los Angeles on May 20, 1989. After her death, Wilder expanded her support group by establishing Gilda’s Clubs, centers offering cancer patients free counseling, throughout the United States and Canada.

Further Reading
Radner, Gilda. It’s Always Something. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Zweibel, Alan.  Bunny Bunny. New York: Villard Books, 1994.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Biography: Gilda Radner (1987). A&E Entertainment, VHS, 1995.
Gilda Live (1980). Warner Home Video, VHS, 1993.