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Death of comedian Gilda Radner at 42

May 20, 1989

Gilda Radner's death from ovarian cancer on May 20, 1989 at age 42 cut short a vital life and comedic career. Born in Detroit in 1946, Radner became widely known as a hilarious member the first cast of Saturday Night Live.

Radner attended the University of Michigan, but left school to move to Toronto where she began her professional acting career. As part of Toronto company of the improvisational group Second City Comedy, she worked with her future SNL colleagues Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Bill Murray. Radner moved to New York in 1973 where she performed Off-Broadway in "The National Lampoon Show." In October 1975, she appeared in the premier of Saturday Night Live and she remained with the show until 1980, winning an Emmy Award in 1978.

Radner created numerous memorable characters, like Roseanne Roseannadanna, while on SNL which established her as one of the cast's most popular members. While on SNL, Radner appeared in numerous skits which drew attention to her Jewish identity. Her fake advertisement for "Jewess Jeans," mocked the materialism of young Jewish women, but also presented the "Jewess" as a role model to which women from other ethnic and racial groups should aspire. A skit which focused on the celebration of Hanukkah offered a rare positive enactment of Jewish ritual on 1970s TV.

In 1979, Radner appeared in a solo Broadway show, Gilda Radner - Live from New York, and in succeeding years appeared in a number of movies. During the filiming of Hanky Panky (1982), she met her second husband, actor Gene Wilder, with whom she would act in Haunted Honeymoon (1986), before Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

Radner, who had struggled thoughout her career with issues related to eating disorders, battled cancer with fierce humor and continued engagement in the world. In an 1988 appearance on It's Gary Shandling's Show, she celebrated her own physical and comedic resilience. She also wrote an autobiography during her illness, It's Always Something, describing her career and the support she'd found within the Wellness Community in battling her illness. After a year of reemission, Gilda Radner's cancer reemerged, and she died on May 20, 1989.

In addition to her comedic legacy, Radner's death helped to sharpen the movement for cancer awareness and early detection and treatment. In addition to the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles established by Gene Wilder, Gilda's Clubs throughout North America offer a crucial supportive environment for women and their families in the struggle against cancer.

Sources: Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1121-1122; Making Trouble (film, 2007); www.MakingTrouble.com.

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Gilda Radner. Image courtesy Michael Radner.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Death of comedian Gilda Radner at 42." (Viewed on August 29, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/may/20/1989/gilda-radner>.

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