1946 – 1989
Known to television audiences as bumbling Emily Litella, scatterbrained Roseanne Roseannadanna, and nerdy Lisa Loopner, comedian Gilda Radner shot to stardom on NBC’s Saturday Night Live (SNL). Hailed by critics as the next Lucille Ball, Radner’s success in television in the 1970s led to a brief film career, tragically cut short by cancer at age forty-two.
Gilda Radner was born June 28, 1946, into the prosperous Detroit Jewish family of Herman and Henrietta (Dworkin) Radner and older brother Michael. Herman’s father, George Ratkowsky, had emigrated from Lithuania to New York City, and later to Detroit, where he established a successful kosher meat business. Herman, despite only a fifth-grade education, made the family fortune from an Ontario brewery he purchased in the 1920s. Radner’s mother, Henrietta, was an aspiring ballet dancer who worked as a legal secretary until she married Herman in October 1937.
Radner remembers her childhood as one of the most difficult periods of her life. Because her mother could not tolerate the Detroit winters, the family spent four months each year in Florida, disrupting the school year, and preventing Radner from making close friends. Radner became attached instead to her governess, “Dibby” (Elizabeth Clementine Gillies), the model for her SNL character Emily Litella. When schoolchildren teased Radner for being overweight, “Dibby” provided Radner with her first lesson in comedy, telling her to “say you’re fat before they can. Just make a joke about it and laugh.” Her relationship with her mother was distant and somewhat competitive, but Radner felt very close to her father, who died of brain cancer when she was fourteen years old. Indulging his own show-business fantasies, Herman encouraged her to perform, gave her dancing lessons, and often took her to Broadway road shows in downtown Detroit. While not religiously observant in her adult life, Radner had a clearly Jewish upbringing. Her brother had a bar mitzva, she attended Sunday and Hebrew school, and sat shiva for her father when he died. For comic material, she often drew on the Jewish community in which she grew up—in skits about the gum-cracking Jewish coed Rhonda Weiss or in her famous “fake” commercial for skin-tight “Jewess jeans.”
Radner attended the University of Michigan, majoring in drama, but never graduated. She moved with a boyfriend to Toronto and landed a part in the musical Godspell. She later joined the Toronto company of Second City Comedy, an improvisational comedy troupe, where she worked with Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Bill Murray.
Radner moved to New York in 1973, joining many of her Second City friends in “The National Lampoon Show,” an Off-Broadway cabaret. In 1975, producer Lorne Michaels chose Radner (whom he had seen perform in Toronto) and other members of the Second City company for his new late-night comedy/variety show. Gilda Radner premiered with the Not Ready for Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live in October 1975, and continued to perform with the troupe until 1980, garnering a 1978 Emmy Award for her work on the show.
While life as a television star was glamorous and fulfilling, Radner suffered from the pitfalls that can accompany fame. Under constant public scrutiny, her lifelong insecurity about her appearance resurfaced, manifesting itself in bouts of bulimia. And although Radner clung to the SNL crowd as a surrogate “family,” she often voiced her desire for marriage and a family of her own. Radner took her SNL act to Broadway in 1979 (Gilda Radner—Live from New York), where she received mixed reviews from critics, but met her first husband, G.E. Smith, the bandleader for the show, whom she married in a civil ceremony in 1980.
Radner appeared in Buck Henry’s film First Family (1980), and then in Hanky Panky (1982), during which she met Gene Wilder. She described the meeting as love at first sight. She soon divorced Smith (1982), and made a second movie with Wilder, The Woman in Red (1984). Wilder and Radner were married in the south of France in September 1984. They made one more movie together, Haunted Honeymoon (1986), before Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Between chemotherapy treatments, Radner wrote her autobiography, It’s Always Something, in which she detailed her struggle with cancer and the aid she received from the Wellness Community.
Gilda Radner died in Los Angeles on May 20, 1989. She employed her Jewish identity as an essential element in her comedy, and her affectionate and incisive characterizations represented an important breakthrough in the visibility of Jewish women on television.
All You Need Is Cash (1978); First Family (1980); Gilda Live [film and record] (1980); Hanky Panky (1982); Haunted Honeymoon (1986); The Last Detail (1973); Mr. Mike’s Mondo Video (1979); Movers and Shakers (1985); The Woman in Red (1984).
Current Biography (February 1980): 29–32; Hevesi, Dennis. “Gilda Radner, 42, Comic Original of ‘Saturday Night Live’ Zaniness.” NYTimes, May 21, 1989, 46; Kaplan, Robert. “Gilda, I Can’t Forget You.” NYTimes, June 2, 1989, A31; Radner, Gilda. It’s Always Something (1989); Saltman, David. Gilda: An Intimate Portrait (1992); Stone, Elizabeth. “Gilda Radner: Goodbye; Roseanne, Hello, Broadway.” NYTimes Magazine, November 9, 1980, sec. 6, p. 42; Young, Tracy. “America’s Last Sweetheart.” Mirabella (September 1989): 122.