Saturday Night’s Children: Gilda Radner (1975-1980)

Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 35 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.

She was one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players, the first Saturday Night Live actress to win national adoration, and unarguably one of the biggest legends in the show’s history. Whether it was her nasal-nerdy Lisa Loopner, the gross tangents of Roseanne Rosannadanna, or the shitfaced rocker Candy Slice, Gilda Radner brought a magnetic, childlike energy and a needed mix of edgy wit and vulnerability to the show while always staying lovable to both her coworkers and audience. Like Candice Bergen said, “Everybody bonded with Gilda…she was irresistible.” Without Gilda – her poof of wavy brown hair, her girlish voice, and her daring willingness to take on even the darkest and most disgusting characters – the path for future female comedians might not have been cleared so early on, and SNL might have been too closed off in its own hipness. But with Gilda, audiences had a fragile, funny, but still courageous figure to guide them through the party.

Radner grew up in Detroit, Michigan and developed an interest in performing at a young age. Her father, who operated the Seville hotel and nurtured Gilda’s interest in show business, died from a brain tumor when she was 14. “He loved performers and entertainment, and I grew up knowing that,” Gilda said in an interview. “Some of his spunk must have come out in me, because he used to love to perform, too. He was funny, he could tell a good story, he could do magic tricks.”

Radner went to the University of Michigan to major in drama, but she dropped out senior year and moved to Toronto. It was there that she landed her first big role in the 1972 production of Godspell alongside Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Paul Shaffer (musical director), and she joined Toronto’s Second City shortly after, where she met and worked with future cast mates Bill Murray, Dan Ackroyd, and John Belushi. In 1973 she moved to New York and was a featured player on The National Lampoon Radio Hour and The National Lampoon Show for a year before joining the original Saturday Night Live cast in 1975. She was the first cast member Lorne Michaels hired for the show.

Probably Radner’s most widely-known characters were her Weekend Update roles like Emily Litella, a nerdy hearing-impaired woman who reads prepared statements about current events that she misheard (“violins on television”, “endangered feces”, “the deaf penalty”), only to be corrected by the Update anchor and follow it up with her trademark line “Ooh…nevermind. …Bitch.” Her most famous character – and one of the show’s first hit recurring characters – was Roseanne Rosannadanna, who was similar to Litella but fell into tangents about disgusting bodily functions and ended her rants with her catchphrase “It’s always something.”

Radner was also known for Baba Wawa, her Barbara Walters impression (which the real Walters was famously unfond of), Patti Smith-esque rocker Candy Slice (who spits beer on Dolly Parton’s breasts at a benefit and and does coke with Olivia Newton John), and Judy Miller, a little girl who pretends to put on a talk show in her bedroom. She also played Connie Carson on the “Woman to Woman” talk show sketches: “I’m Connie Carson, a young, unmarried career woman with no children, who makes a career out of talking to women about women and their careers.” Radner also appeared as Patti Hearst, Lucille Ball, Annette Funicello, Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Onassis, and more. “She had this thing that was so extreme that you could throw anything at it and it would hit the mark,” Bill Murray says in Live from New York. “Partly because she was such a bright target and partly because of the way she reacted to it.” Radner won an Emmy for her work on SNL in 1978.

In 1979, Radner turned down an offer for her own NBC show to perform in her one-woman Broadway show Gilda Radner – Live from New York, which was also released as the film Gilda Live! the same year. During production of Gilda Live! she met future-SNL musical director G.E. Smith and married him; they divorced a year later. Radner left SNL along with the rest of the cast in 1980 and began a film career with Buck Henry’s 1980 film First Family then Hanky Panky, The Woman in Red, Movers & Shakers, and Haunted Honeymoon in 1986, several of which she costarred with Gene Wilder, who she married in 1984.

While filming Haunted Honeymoon in 1985, Radner began to experience pain in her upper legs and went almost a year until she received a belated ovarian cancer diagnosis. After undergoing chemotherapy she went into remission and wrote her memoir It’s Always Something, titled after her SNL character Roseanne Rosannadanna. In 1988, her cancer returned and she fell into a coma during her CAT scan, and she died three days later on May 20, 1989. In addition to her battle with cancer, Radner also had a lifelong struggle with bulimia. After her death, Gene Wilder co-founded Gilda’s Club, a cancer support community with locations nationwide, to raise ovarian cancer awareness in Gilda’s memory. “Gilda was so lovable in person as a person,” Steve Martin says in Live from New York. “And it was easy to get sentimental about her, because in looking back over her life, I know she had trials and tribulations, but knowing her, it was never expressed. It was just joy and happiness and funniness and comedy.” Luckily for us, Gilda’s endearing innocence and harrowing urban edge will always be there waiting to be rediscovered.

Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.

Saturday Night’s Children: Gilda Radner (1975-1980)