Today is the birthday of the divine Gilda Radner (1946-1989).
I’m sad at how she’s fallen by the wayside in people’s memories — Belushi, too, but Gilda even more so. She was second only to Belushi on SNL after Chevy Chase left (or about on par with Aykroyd, anyway, although she created more indelible characters, Emily Latella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, Lisa Loopner, and impressions of Lucille Ball and Patti Smith. Whereas Akroyd’s specialty was in playing everybody).
With her frizzy hair, husky voice and infectious, child-like smile, she was a rock star. She seemed to be exotic (like Barnum’s Circassian beauties), to be a little naughty insomuch as that she would do some truly dangerous comedy, and yet somehow she also seemed very girl-next-door at the same time. Almost like an older cousin who comes over on a visit and instigates some mild trouble on a rainy afternoon. I was in middle school and Junior high school at the time – -impossible not to be in love with her.
The first part of her career seemed charmed. Originally from Detroit, she dropped out of college and appeared in a legendary production of Godspell in 1972 that also included Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber and Martin Short. Then she joined Toronto’s Second City troupe, which led to the National Lampoon Radio Hour (1974-1975) with John Belushi, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray and Brian Doyle-Murray.
Radner was the first person cast for Saturday Night Live in 1975. In 1979, she had her own one-woman Broadway show, and thus seemed poised as one of the most promising of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players for the post SNL era.
But her film career was a huge disappointment. First Family (1980) looks good on paper, a Buck Henry vehicle with a killer comedy cast led by Bob Newhart, but it flopped, and if memory serves, justifiably so. And then she met, fell in love with and married Gene Wilder, who was brilliant in his earlier years but was well past his prime in the 1980s. The two of them co-starred in a trio of turkeys: Hanky Panky (1982), The Woman in Red (1984) and Haunted Honeymoon (1986). These movies were wildly out of step with the sensibilities of the times. And the sensibilities of the times were moronic, so how sad to not even be up to THAT level. (There were lots of great comedies in the 80s, but almost none of them made by comedy people per se…I think of people like the Coen Brothers, Martin Scorsese, and Jonathan Demme as making the cutting edge comedies of the decade and of course the eternal Woody Allen. None of the SNL crowd got anywhere near movies like those people made).
At any rate, Gilda never got a shot at a course correction. In 1986 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a slow and painful death, finally passing away in 1989.
Here she is in her prime. (Can’t find any direct SNL video on Youtube no doubt because of rights. Looks like somebody grabbed this off their TV. Still really worth watching. This performer is in COMMAND of what she’s doing):
To find out about show business (including tv variety), consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc