March 15, 1999 12:00 PM

For years she was America’s favorite Saturday night date, the sweet Everygirl who would do anything for a laugh. Shove beans up her nose. Paste hair patches in her armpits. Hurl herself against walls with rib-cracking force. Better still, Radner wasn’t just one date—she was a whole gallery of them. Brash Roseanne (“It’s always something”) Roseannadanna. Nerdy Lisa (“Noogies!”) Loopner. Ditsy Emily (“Never mind”) Litella. Each was bighearted and unabashedly vulnerable—in short, a lot like Radner herself. “You felt like you knew her,” says Alan Zweibel, one of the original writers for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, the show that made Radner famous. “She was a star, but she was your sister.”

A decade after Radner’s death from ovarian cancer at 42, her comedy still seems remarkably fresh and vivid. “She cranked out so many great characters,” says Molly Shannon, a member of the current SNL troupe. “She was a huge inspiration.”

Radner’s commitment to laughter extended well beyond the stage. Thanks to the efforts of her husband, Gene Wilder, and her psychotherapist, Joanna Bull, today there are seven Gilda’s Clubs across the country (with 15 more scheduled to open worldwide) that offer cancer patients a cost-free retreat where they can cry, yell and, most important, laugh. “You hear mostly people having a good time,” says Michael Radner, 57, her only sibling. “So, once again, Gilda is making people happy.”

That’s a fitting coda for the Detroit-born comedian. Former SNL writer Anne Beatts remembers a night before Radner hit it big when she left diners at Manhattan’s Oyster Bar in stitches. “She went around and asked everyone at their tables if she could taste their dessert,” says Beatts. “They all let her!” After she became a superstar, Radner remained so solicitous of her fans that once, when zealots shoved autograph books under her stall in a public rest room, Radner signed. If shoppers stopped her, Zweibel recalls, “Gilda would look at them and say, ‘Do you think I should buy this color sweater or that color sweater?’ ”

Still, the spotlight took its toll. Radner entered into an unfulfilling marriage with SNL guitarist G.E. Smith in 1980 (they divorced in 1982) and struggled with an eating disorder. As she wrote in her 1989 autobiography It’s Always Something, “My private life was all obsessive eating and throwing up.” In 1981 she fell in love with Wilder, her costar in Hanky Panky. After their 1984 nuptials, Radner felt secure enough to conquer her anorexia and bulimia.

Her unvarnished happiness proved short-lived. First, Radner, who longed for children, couldn’t conceive; fertility treatments ended in two miscarriages. Then, in January 1986, she developed flu-like symptoms. She was dismissed by doctors as high-strung; it took 10 months before she was diagnosed with advanced cancer. Despite the stress, says Wilder, “we got closer.”

She continued to nurture her friendships as well. Shortly before her death on May 20, 1989, Radner escorted two lifelong pals to tea at Anne Bancroft’s Los Angeles home. Though she “had so little energy” and was “absolutely yellow” from liver failure, recalls Pam Zackheim, now a Miami psychotherapist, “she was focusing on us.” Radner, who called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world,” would no doubt hate to have her story end here. Today when Wilder, who married speech therapist Karen Webb in 1991, says, “I don’t want to talk about cancer anymore; I’m cancered out,” you can just hear Emily Litella cackling, “What’s this about being ‘answered out’? There can never be enough answers…. What?…Oh. Never mind.”

Jill Smolowe

Eve Heyn in New York City

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