Gilda Radner

From Academic Kids

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Gilda Radner's "Live From New York" LP cover

Gilda Radner (June 28, 1946 - May 20, 1989) was an American comedian and actress. At the height of her career and popularity, she died at the age of only 42 of ovarian cancer. She became an icon for public awareness of both detection and treatment of ovarian cancer.

Born to a well-to-do Jewish family in Detroit, Michigan, Radner attended the University of Michigan as a drama major and moved to Toronto, Canada. Her first professional stage experience was a Toronto production of Godspell following which she joined the Toronto Second City comedy troupe.

Radner was a featured player on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a half-hour comedy program syndicated to some 600 U.S. radio stations from 1973 to 1975. Fellow cast members included John Belushi, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.

She first rose to widespread fame as one of the original "Not Ready For Prime Time Players" on Saturday Night Live. (She was the first actor cast for the show.) On that show from 1975 to 1980 she created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna (a coarse woman with long black hair that always seemed to end up in places it didn't belong), Baba Wawa (a spoof of journalist Barbara Walters), and Emily Litella (an old lady who would launch into tirades on various topics, always based on a false premise. When the mistake was revealed, Emily would simply look into the camera and quietly say, "never mind"). Radner had a knack for combining extreme physical comedy with soft, caring characters that were easy to love. (There is a legend that Radner broke several ribs during one comedy sketch that required her to slam herself against a door repeatedly, but the next day she went on as scheduled.) Radner also battled bulimia during her time on the show (she once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in New York City), and had a relationship with co-star Bill Murray which ended badly. In 1979 incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she ultimately turned down.

In her final season of Saturday Night Live, Radner appeared on Broadway in a successful one-woman show that featured racier material, such as the humorous song "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals". This show was captured on film in 1981 as Gilda Live! and co-starred Paul Shaffer and Don Novello. The play was also released as an album recording -- the play was a qualified success, the film and album were failures.

She spent most of the next decade keeping a surprisingly low profile, aside from appearances in such films as Hanky Panky, The Lady in Red, and Haunted Honeymoon. In the late 1980s, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Even with the support of her second husband, actor Gene Wilder, (she had previously been married to Saturday Night Live band leader G.E. Smith,) she suffered extreme pain (physical and emotional) as a chemotherapy patient. Eventually she was told she had gone into remission, and she wrote a memoir about her life and struggle with the illness, called It's Always Something. The book was written by Radner in tribute to cancer sufferers everywhere, and she used humor to overcome tragedy and pain. The book's title came from a common catch-phrase from her Saturday Night Live character Roseanne Rosannadanna, who would often quote an elderly relative by saying "It just goes to show's always something! If it's not one thing, it's another!"

In 1988 she guest-starred as herself on It's Garry Shandling's Show to great critical acclaim. She planned to host an episode of SNL that year but a writers' strike caused the cancellation of the rest of the season. She wanted to host the next year, but in 1989 doctors did a more detailed examination and discovered that Radner's cancerous cells had not all been removed and had spread to other areas of the body. She died in Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, California, in 1989, where she had been admitted for a CAT scan. She was given a sedative and passed into a coma. After three days, she died without regaining consciousness, with Wilder at her side.

Wilder has since established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates and run basic diagnostic tests. He testified before a Congressional committee that her condition was misdiagnosed and that if doctors had inquired more deeply into her family background they would have found numerous cases of ovarian cancer and might have attacked the disease earlier.

Wilder has continued his involvement in both detection and treatment of ovarian cancer. In tribute to Radner, Gilda's Club was founded. It is a place where cancer patients and their families can go to be around other people in the same situation to share support, coping and wellness strategies. It grew to multiple locations across the country.

In 1992, Radner was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame for her achievements in arts and entertainment.

In 2002 the ABC television network aired a TV-movie about her life, starring Jami Gertz.

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