Saturday Night Sweetheart
With an appalling lack of foresight, she was named Gilda, after the torchy ’40s nightclub singer played by Rita Hay worth in the movies. As luck would have it and despite her hopes, Gilda Radner never did become a glamour queen—at least not in the ordinary sense. Waifish and loopy, the little Miss Firecracker with the toothpick arms and infectious cackle instead became something more. The versatile pivot of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, that breakthrough comedy cadre of the 1970s, she became the nation’s favorite Saturday Night date. She became the girlfriend who could always make you laugh even after the glamour queens and football captains of this world went out with someone else. She became a generation’s endearingly goofy sweetheart.
She traveled with her lumpy carpetbag of characters named Emily and Baba and Lisa and Roseanne. “So much of what made up her characters didn’t come out of dreaming that stuff up,” says friend David Sklare, who first met her 30 years ago at Michigan’s Camp Tamakwa, one of her happiest childhood haunts. “They evolved from her being so open to the funniness in life.”
Everyone could sense that truth, just by watching her on the tube. And so, with the news of Gilda’s death from ovarian cancer at 42, it was a shock to fully realize just how little had been left to her to be funny about—and how bravely she tried. Since the cancer was first diagnosed in October 1986, she had never been entirely out of treatment, fighting an unrelentingly brutal 2½-year battle, weathering chemotherapy and radiation treatments that left her with intestinal ulcers.
For a time, starting in late 1987, gaining weight and with her hair partially grown back, it seemed as if she really were in remission. But by this spring, jaundiced and in excruciating pain, it was obvious that her under-90-lb. body was finally giving way. When her devoted husband, actor Gene Wilder, brought her to the hospital on May 17, she was still conscious. Three days later at 6:20 A.M., six weeks shy of her 43rd birthday, she died in her sleep at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in L.A., with her husband at her bedside, in the month she’d always loved most “because of the lilacs blooming.”
In the large, recent wake of another giant comedian’s passing, there were inevitable comparisons. But for a particular group of thirtysomething kids, Lucy was the grown-up they had watched while growing up; Gilda, the endearing class clown, was one of their own. As such, her death came as a jolting reminder of mortality for a generation that prided itself on living as if there were no tomorrow. But, unlike her friend John Belushi and other drug-fueled flameouts of her era, Gilda was not an accomplice to her death. She railed against it, tenaciously fought against it with a courage that—the hell with the cliché—was an inspiration. “My life had made me funny, and cancer wasn’t going to change that,” she wrote in her new book, It’s Always Something. “Cancer, I decided, needed a comedienne to come in there and lighten it up.”
She had been practicing similar magic nearly all her life. One of two children, Gilda was devoted to her father, Herman Radner, a Detroit real-estate investor who made his seed money during Prohibition and parlayed it into a fortune. In 1958, when Gilda was 12, he was stricken with a brain tumor and died two years later. “My father liked show business,” says Gilda’s brother, Michael, 47, an investor living in Southfield, Mich. “He was always encouraging her to go out in front of a crowd and perform. She was so young when she lost him. It drew her even closer to him.”
“She was always a little actress,” says Radner’s mother, Henrietta. “Even on the phone she expressed herself with emotions.” Years later Gilda would wonder, “So did I become an entertainer because my father died and I wanted to be what he loved? I don’t know.”
Childhood brought other pains. Radner’s blooming weight, for instance, didn’t make her the hottest date at Detroit’s Liggett School for Girls. One boy, who happened to size her up at the door for a prospective blind date, bluntly said, “You realize I can’t take you out, don’t you?”
She spent six years as a drama major at the University of Michigan without ever graduating, and fessed up to continually dropping out on whims. Later she would recall that it was once for “minor surgery” to remove an ovarian cyst.
In 1969, one semester before graduation, she left town for Toronto and got a job as a ticket taker for $60 a week at a local theater. Soon local theaters were taking stock of her. Radner won a part in a 1972 production of Godspell and a year later became a member of the Second City comedy group, joining the likes of Belushi, Dan Aykroyd and John Candy. She also caught the eye of producer Lorne Michaels, who recalls being impressed by such peculiar Radner abilities as “playing 14 Bingo cards at a time” or “remembering everything she’d eaten that day. She’d just literally reel it off—the french fries off someone’s plate, a Milk Dud from the bottom of her purse.”
This latter talent soon formed the basis of a regular feature, called “What Gilda Ate,” on a TV show that Michaels began producing for NBC in 1975. Saturday Night Live. Radner was the first woman he signed, and she quickly became the Not Ready for Prime Time Players’ brightest female star. “If Saturday Night Live was like Never-Never-Land, the Island of Lost Boys, she was Tinker Bell.” says Anne Beatts, the show’s former head writer. “She just hadn’t lost touch with the child in her.”
Gilda attributed her popularity to “saying yes to every kid on a high school newspaper who called for an interview.” She was scrupulous not only with her fans (Xeroxing a supply of giveaway photos when NBC didn’t provide her with enough) but also with Belushi’s—answering his fan mail when he couldn’t be bothered.
The SNL years “were the period when she was America’s sweetheart,” says Bernie Brillstein, who managed Radner, Belushi and Aykroyd. “I remember her walking down the street in a Yankee baseball hat, with her ponytail through a hole in the back of the hat, walking with that ballet walk, and everyone in the street would say, ‘Hi, Gilda.’ They loved her.”
In 1979, frazzled by the grueling day-for-night schedule, Gilda left SNL and sashayed to Broadway, where she starred in a one-woman show, Gilda Radner—Live from New York and Jean Kerr’s Lunch Hour. In spite of her successes, however, she had moments of insecurity. Obsessed with food, she became a bulimic. Loneliness also wounded her. “If humor is the foundation” for life, she wrote, “then men are the first floor.” After 15 root canals in two years, she claimed that the man she’d known longest in New York was her dentist.
Her first marriage, in 1980 to guitarist G.E. Smith, lasted 22 months. “It wasn’t a particularly good match,” says psychotherapist Pain Katz, one of Gilda’s closest friends, but it left few hard feelings. “We weren’t in constant contact after we broke up,” says Smith, who now leads the SNL band. “But we talked several times a year. There was never any bitterness or anger between us. We were friends. The marriage just didn’t work out.”
What undoubtedly marked its end was Radner’s role in Hanky Panky, a 1982 movie farce that bombed at the box office. Gilda’s relationship with her co-star, Gene Wilder, did not. “When I went to see Gilda, Gene was across the room,” says Katz, who visited them on the Hanky Panky set. “There was a chemistry that was palpable and an electricity in the air. They hadn’t been together yet, but there was no chance that they weren’t going to be.”
“Gene was funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good,” Gilda wrote. She learned tennis to please him, and she made it her full-time job to talk him into marrying her. She finally succeeded on Sept 18, 1984, with a ceremony held in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, a leafy 13th-century town in the hills of southern France. “They were constant honeymooners,” says producer Martin Ransohoff’s wife, Joan, a longtime friend of Wilder’s. “It was fun and infectious to be around them they were so in love. You were really happy for them. Both had been married before, and they were very, very happy to have found one another.”
Eighteen months later, grieving after two miscarriages, Gilda developed a persistent flu that wouldn’t go away. Her legs ached and she had a low fever. Doctors first diagnosed Epstein-Barr virus, then thought she was imagining things. She wasn’t In October 1986 she was told she had an ovarian malignancy. After surgery that included a total hysterectomy, she was pronounced “clean.” By then, however, there were signs that the cancer had already spread to her liver and bowel.
From then on, Gilda and cancer grappled back and forth for her life. She quit smoking and fretted over what she might have done to provoke her illness: the years of saccharin, cyclamates and endless diet soft drinks? How about the red dye No. 2 in all those red jelly beans and lollipops? Or even, God forbid, her beloved tuna fish?
In all, there were nine rounds of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments and four peritoneal “washes” that infused her with antitumor drugs. Through it all she tried to channel her rage, but sometimes, according to her book, she exploded at Wilder. “You can leave me if you want,” she screamed, “or are you afraid to leave someone who is dying of cancer?”
He never left. “Gene was a doll,” says SNL alumna Laraine Newman. “Gilda said he was 100 percent there for her. But she felt guilty about him. She felt so bad that she was taking so much from him. She wanted to be able to take care of herself.”
One tool she still had was her humor, even if it had been painted black. During chemo she wondered, Emily Liteila—like, how to handle the etiquette of eating at a friend’s house and having a clump of hair from her balding head land right in the salmon dijonnaise. Finally she settled on a cheap Peter Pan wig, the only head covering she quite cared to wear.
Radner found solace in the Wellness Community, a Santa Monica yellow clapboard house that serves as a free self-help therapy and recreational base for cancer patients. Somehow, she found strength to counsel others with her spirit and humor. “I went bald because of chemotherapy,” says Melinda Sheinkopf, a Wellness member who won her battle with ovarian cancer. “Gilda made it bearable. She brought me curlers, mousse and gel in a little bag. I laughed myself silly.”
For a time, at least, it seemed Radner was in remission. She swam, did needlepoint and began writing her book. In March 1988 she taped an episode for her friend Garry Shandling’s TV show. Knees knocking, she wowed ’em and won an Emmy nomination. “I’ve been away from TV for a while,” she said to Shandling.
“Yeah, what happened?” he asked.
“I had cancer,” she chirped brightly. “What did you have?
It was to be her last television appearance. In May 1988, after four months of rallying, blood tests again showed insidious “tumor activity.” “She was always cheerful and optimistic,” says actor Charles Grodin, a friend of Radner’s. “When you didn’t hear from her, you’d start to get nervous…. She didn’t call in the last six months.”
With things becoming desperate, Radner said in her book, she tried a macrobiotic diet and threatened to go to Mexico for laetrile treatments. “I don’t care if you’re dying,” hollered Wilder. “You’re not going to have peach pits!” But by February, as her strength ebbed and her pallor grew, the inevitable became obvious. Two months ago, Gilda called a Toronto friend, Janet Siskind Robertson.” ‘Oh, God, my mind is 100 percent,’ Gilda said, ‘but my body is like a 4.’ She always needed hugs and kisses when we were kids. And now she was hooking herself up to IVs every night”
Gilda’s hospital trips were coming with ever greater frequency. In the final weeks, said friends, her attitude was “upbeat but realistic.” Her book about the cancer battle was now complete. “She knew the ending had to be ambiguous,” says a close friend. “She didn’t know the ending. She just hoped it would be a happy one.”
Radner once had a vision of her future. “I grew up in front of a television,” she said. “I guess I’ll grow old inside of one.” That, sadly, was not in the cards.
The night of Gilda’s death, Robertson’s 11-year-old daughter was inconsolable. “She was crying so hard,” says Robertson. “I said to her, ‘You know what honey? We have to let our tears out But for Gilda, we have to end with a laugh.’ ”
That would be so much easier if only she were here.
—Susan Schindehette, and the Detroit, Los Angeles and New York bureaus