Gilda Radner has made this major discovery: Women are funny. And because her Saturday Night Live has been granted satirical asylum by NBC, she’s caricatured Barbara Walters (or Baba Wawa, as she pronounces it) and the likes of Jackie O, Miss Lillian and Patty Hearst. Radner’s ready, in short, for just about everything but her own prime-time celebrity. One of the discombobulating and exhilarating nights of her 31 years occurred not long ago when Radner was up for an Emmy, and George Harrison, who was in the audience, smiled recognition. “It just surprised me that an actual Beatle would know who I was,” she gee-whizzes. “There is no mystique about me. I’m just a person. Some days I’m cranky, and it’s the week before my period just like everybody else.”
Gilda figures modestly that she’s taken the spotlight from what was practically The Chevy Chase Show before his exit, because she’s said yes “to every kid on a high school paper who called for an interview.” She personally dispatches postcards bearing her picture in response to fan mail and even handles requests for other members of the troupe who won’t be bothered, like John Belushi. Not big into self-delusion, Radner doesn’t pretend to be a model of maturity herself. “My personal life is confused and at loose ends,” she concedes. “I start to go out with a guy and then think, ‘Can I handle this?’ ” The answer so far has been not really. After an on-and-off eight months, she sometimes sees Peter (Equus) Firth, but only when he’s in New York. Similarly, there was an interim encounter with Chris (Dog Day Afternoon) Sarandon when they co-starred in stock last summer. But though “nothing ends, like, horrible,” she explains, “I’m nobody’s steady date. I can always be distracted by love, but eventually I get horny for my creativity.”
It is awesome in Gilda’s case. She doesn’t so much write her characters’ lines as live their lives. It hurts when “Baba Wawa” and “Emily Litella” are semiretired (the troupe decided they were overdone after two seasons) for successors like the hyperkinetic kid “Judy Miller.” Judy’s baby-bird smile can turn into tears back in the cubicle of a dressing room Gilda shares with other Saturday Night leading ladies Laraine Newman and Jane Curtin. “It all,” Radner sniffles, “takes a slice out of my soul.” But Lorne Michaels, the 33-year-old creator-genius of the series, says, “The same vulnerability that hurts her is what will make her a star.” Gilda is not unaware. “I wish I could be stupider,” she chirps, “but I’m real smart. I have another consciousness besides the humor. I know what’s going on here.” She didn’t have to attend the Houston Summit to comprehend the plight of women or America.
But Radner’s not a political or ideological animal. She’s too busy logging some 60 hours every week (except for rerun times like Thanksgiving). That work ethic came from an upper-middle-class Detroit childhood. The Radners were Jewish, but not Orthodox, which, Gilda clarifies, “means that at Yom Kippur during the fast my mom would say, ‘If you get dizzy around 3 p.m., you can eat some tuna fish.’ ” Gilda and her older brother had their own rooms, telephones and a nanny (whom her “Emily Litella” character is modeled after). But Radner professes, not totally convincingly, to have enjoyed the comedian’s de rigueur “nightmare childhood.” She was fat and recalls that “they asked me to be a chubette model at Lane Bryant—that was my first job offer, but I turned it down. I’m still a fat person,” says the 5’6″ comedienne, though at 105 she weighs 45 lbs. less than she did seven years ago. “What my body looks like now is pure vanity,” she says, a euphemism for mannequin emaciation achieved by switching to sugarless bubble gum (Bazooka) and by forcing herself to throw up after a no-no nosh.
“I always believed that a kid didn’t need wit if she’s got looks,” she theorizes. “I think the Liggett School was where my comedy got started, because the emphasis in non-co-ed schools is on who’s clever and funny, not who is the prettiest.” (Interestingly, Jane Curtin, the knockout blonde of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, also figures that a girls’ school turned her into a comedienne.) Another nudge into theater came from her father, a real estate investor who took her to musicals and encouraged her to play chorus line in the backyard. He died when she was 14, and, she says with deep pain, “It has always pissed me off that I couldn’t have him around longer.”
When she went on to the U of Michigan, Radner stuck close to drama, even though she studied for a teaching certificate—”My mother said you had to have one to fall back on.” Yet after six years and still one semester short of a degree, Gilda ran off to Canada with a metal sculptor. He lasted a year and a half, and she finished college in Toronto night school but never bothered to send in her credits to get her teaching certificate. By then Gilda had successfully auditioned for the local company of Godspell. After that she joined Toronto’s Second City Improvisational Company, where she encountered Belushi, who coaxed her to New York for The National Lampoon Show in ’74. Saturday Night producer Michaels, who caught her in Godspell and remembered “an amazing amount of raw talent,” hired her without a test.
“I can’t believe she’s getting paid for what she’s been doing in my bedroom since we were 8 years old,” says one of Gilda’s oldest friends. Neither can Gilda, who hasn’t outgrown doing the same stuff in her bedroom now—like lip-synching her favorite record, Ike and Tina Turner’s River Deep—Mountain High. “I can pantomime that better than anyone in the whole world,” she announces.
Bourgeois funk is still her thing. After seven sublets in the past two years, she has finally settled into her own $1,100-a-month Greenwich Village duplex. She feels more comfortable, though, shopping in Toronto (“I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn’t itch”) but has finally shipped her wardrobe and early American furniture to Manhattan. “At 31,” Gilda observes sadly, “I am building a fortress to my own aloneness.” Her aloneness isn’t total. She shares the place with Dale Anglund, former stage manager of the Lampoon Show, who acts as majordomo, answering phone calls and reassuring Gilda about how she looks. Being gay, he’s no threat. “A part of me wants a boyfriend,” she sorrows. “But when it gets down to it with my work and the lifestyle it imposes—I can’t attach to people.”
Except colleagues. Postshow she’ll bring the whole cast home for a pajama party, complete with oatmeal and Sunday papers. Until something else happens, that’s fine. “The more I think about what’s next, it spoils acting,” she finds. Her tap dance tutor Dennis Grimaldi foresees “a great, great future for Gilda—she can be a new Judy Holliday.” But Gilda doesn’t want discomfiting compliments, she wants dance lessons. The best thing about tap, she says, is that “you can stamp your little guts out if you’re pissed off.”
That’s not her present state of mind. “I’d like to write a letter to the people out there as if I was writing home from camp,” she says. “I’d want them to know I was having a good time. I know I’m lucky to have the job.” Chevy Chase found himself “burnt out” by Saturday Night at 33. Gilda finds herself still “greedy for experience” in what all think may be the series’ last season. It never occurs to her that she may be grievously underpaid at some $500-odd a show. As her agent (who also represents Belushi and producer Michaels) says: “They are a different breed. They won’t do just anything for money.” The Gildas of the world (not that there are many others) “do what they like and what they believe in.”