This Day in Jewish History

1989: Fans Say Goodbye to Comic Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner, who left an indelible mark on a generation of 'Saturday Night Live' fans with her classic characters, succumbed to cancer at 42.

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On May 20, 1989, comedian and actress Gilda Radner died, at the age of 42. Radner was one of the first – if not the first – performers cast for the premier season of TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” in 1975.

During her six years on the show, she became identified – some would say eternally – with the characters she created and played, which included television advice columnist Roseanne Rosennadanna, nerdy teenager Lisa Loopner, and the hard-of-hearing, opinionated master-of-the-malapropism Emily Litella. Then there was Baba Wawa, a parody of TV interviewer extraordinaire Barbara Walters, whom Radner lampooned for her speech impediment. Walters recently revealed that she grew to appreciate the character, and even signed her name as “Baba Wawa” when she wrote Radner’s husband, Gene Wilder, a condolence note upon her death.

Gilda Radner was born June 28, 1946, and grew up in Detroit, Michigan, the daughter of successful businessman Herman Radner and the former Henrietta Dworkin. Gilda was close to her father, who owned a hotel in Detroit, the Seville, which hosted many performers when they came to town. He also would take his daughter to plays in New York, inspiring her interest in a career on the stage. He died when Gilda was 14.

She had a difficult relationship with her mother, and, at the age of 9, began manifesting eating disorders, which plagued her throughout her life. In her 1989 memoir, “It’s Always Something,” Radner wrote: “My weight distressed my mother and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old."

Radner began her professional career as a weather girl for the radio station at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, where she was studying drama. She left college during her junior year, moving with her then-boyfriend to Toronto. There, in 1972, she was cast in a local production of the musical “Godspell,” before joining the cast of the Second City comedy troupe. (Second City originated in Chicago in 1959, but a spin-off branch opened in Toronto in 1973.) In 1974, Radner began performing with the nationally syndicated radio program “National Lampoon Radio Hour,” together with such future Saturday Night Live stars as John Belushi, Bill Murray and Chevy Chase.

The freshman group of comedians hired by Lorne Michaels for the first season of “Saturday Night” (later, “Saturday Night Live,” before becoming simply “SNL”) were called the Not Ready for Prime Time Players, and included Belushi and Chase, as well as Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman and Garrett Morris.

Emily Litella had her origins in the Fairness Doctrine, the policy governing U.S. broadcasting that required TV stations to devote a certain number of minutes each week to “opposing points of view” on public issues. The elderly, short-sighted Litella would appear regularly on SNL’s “Weekend Update” news show, to weigh in on the subject of the day, with her comments generally shaped by her misunderstanding of what the topic itself was. She had strong opinions on “endangered feces,” “presidential erections” and the vexing question of whether to “make Puerto Rico a steak.” On the last point, she warned that, “the next thing you know, they’ll want a baked potato with sour cream.”

Radner’s characters and impressions could be sharp, and were often scatological, but there was always something unthreatening about them, and lovable about their creator.

Radner was married for several years to a musician on “SNL,” and she reportedly had an ultimately painful relationship with co-star Bill Murray, and then finally, in 1984, she married comic actor Gene Wilder, whom she met on the set of the film “Hanky Panky.” She had left “SNL” in 1980, devoting her time to film and theater work, including a 1979 one-woman show called “Gilda Radner – Live from New York.”

The year after she and Wilder married, she began having a variety of disturbing medical symptoms. It took nearly a year for her to get a correct diagnosis – of ovarian cancer – which was followed by difficult treatment. She later was told that she was in remission, but several months later, the cancer reappeared, and she died on this date in 1989, at the age of 42.

After her death, Gene Wilder established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in Los Angeles, which was dedicated to screening women in high-risk population groups, such as Ashkenazi Jewish women. He also was involved in the establishment of Gilda’s Club, a network of support institutions around the United States for cancer patients and their families. Its name came from a remark made by Radner, who was quite public about her illness, that "Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to."

Last year, several of the branch chapters of Gilda’s Club announced they were changing their name, having realized that many of the people in their target cohort had been born after Gilda Radner’s death, and did not recognize her name. As the director of Gilda’s Club in Madison, Wisconsin, told the Wisconsin State Journal, “We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there's not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors."