The Lost Roles of Gilda Radner

Lost Roles is a weekly column that takes a particular comedic performer or writer and dives deep into all of their movie and TV projects that came close to happening but didn’t for one reason or another. This week, we turn our attention to beloved and much-missed original SNL castmember Gilda Radner.

I’ve recently noticed that, amongst the current crop of comedians and comedic actors, two of the most often-cited influences are for guys, Bill Murray, and for girls, Gilda Radner. These two members of Saturday Night Live’s 70s golden era hold a prolific place in the hearts and minds of those in the comedy community. While Bill Murray is still plowing ahead with his fun and unpredictable career, appearing in an eclectic mix of movies, Gilda Radner never got the chance. Radner’s life was tragically taken by cancer in 1989, but her influence on modern comedy abounds. Everyone from Tina Fey to Lena Dunham has cited Gilda Radner as the main person who inspired them to go into comedy, and Radner remains one of the most beloved SNL castmembers ever — even as the show continues to introduce us to new funny people every year.

After leaving SNL, Radner’s movie career never reached the heights of her peers’ like Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd, but her brilliant work on SNL has stood the test of time and ensured her place in comedy history. If Gilda Radner’s life hadn’t ended so early, I imagine she would have achieved movie stardom just like the SNL boys. She certainly had the talent for it.

Throughout her career, Radner was either considered for or offered several high-profile parts in movies and TV that she wasn’t able to accept. Let’s take a look at some of the roles she almost had, including projects that would have seen her collaborating with the Monty Python guys, playing Popeye’s girlfriend, and starring in her own primetime show.

The David Steinberg Show (1976)

In the early 70s, Gilda Radner joined the cast of two influential underground comedy collectives: the famed Second City Theatre in Toronto, where she acted alongside Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, and Joe Flaherty, and the National Lampoon Radio Hour, where she performed with John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, and Christopher Guest. In 1975, Radner’s work on the Second City stage earned her two big offers at the same time: a spot as a “Not Ready for Prime Time Player” on SNL, and a role on The David Steinberg Show, a syndicated Canadian comedy series that was a precursor to The Larry Sanders Show. Talent manager Bernie Brillstein, who represented Lorne Michaels and would eventually rep Radner, had to call her to convince her not to join the cast of The David Steinberg Show, where her Second City compatriots John Candy, Joe Flaherty, Andrea Martin, and Martin Short had been hired. Brillstein had never met Radner at the time, but he was still able to talk her into taking the SNL deal instead, where she quickly became one of the show’s most popular castmembers and had a much larger effect upon pop culture than she would have as a supporting character on a syndicated Canadian TV show.

A primetime NBC variety show (1979)

With Saturday Night Live at the peak of its popularity in 1978, newly-installed NBC president Fred Silverman wanted to capitalize on the show’s success by using its stars to fill out his network’s primetime schedule. Silverman began talks with Gilda Radner and Lorne Michaels to produce a weekly variety show starring Radner that would begin airing in primetime in 1979. Fred Silverman was determined to make Gilda Radner into “the next Lucille Ball” or an edgier Carol Burnett. According to NBC head of programming Paul Klein in Saturday Night: A Backstage History of Saturday Night Live, Silverman repeated the mantra “Wednesday night at nine is Gilda Time!” over and over around the office, which sounds kinda creepy.

Gilda Radner and Lorne Michaels met with Silverman to structure a deal over the course of several months, arranging a guaranteed 17-episode commitment and a high salary for Radner, but she and Michaels decided against making the show before things got too far. Radner didn’t want to add five years to her sentence at NBC (the standard TV contract at that point was five years) and was worried that she couldn’t do both SNL and her own show. She also fered breaking up the SNL gang. Silverman was insulted by Radner turning the show down, assuming that Lorne Michaels was pulling the strings. The collapse of the Gilda Radner variety show deal soured relations between Michaels and Silverman. Michaels responded by having John Belushi impersonate the network president on the air and Silverman took action by leaving Lorne Michaels out of discussions about his SNL successor in 1980, which led to Silverman installing Jean Doumanian in the position, a move that nearly killed the show.

Instead of the variety series, Lorne Michaels and Gilda Radner teamed up for Gilda Live!, a Broadway show based around Radner’s talents that was later turned into an unsuccessful movie and album. While Radner never had a lot of success in movies, staying on TV for a variety show might have been the best thing for her career at the time. You can’t blame her for wanting to move on, though, as years of SNL’s intense schedule and long hours had tired her out (she was one of the few members of the original SNL gang running on adrenaline instead of cocaine). Primetime variety shows were dying out in the late 70s too, so it would have been a strange time to throw Gilda Radner into this soon-to-be-antiquated format.

Popeye (1980)

The role: Olive Oyl

Who got it: Shelly Duvall

A castmember on SNL at the time filming began, Gilda Radner was who the studio wanted for the lead female role in director Robert Altman’s live action musical adaptation of the Popeye cartoons. Altman wanted Shelley Duvall for the part and got his way, casting Duvall opposite Robin Williams’s Popeye when Radner turned the offer down. The resulting movie flopped with critics and didn’t win over audiences like the filmmakers had expected. Radner explained her decision to pass on Popeye to People magazine in 1979, saying, “It’s very tempting to do Olive Oyl because I grew up with her and dress like her. But I really don’t know what to do… It would be like spitting at your parents.”

Arthur (1981)

The role: Linda Marolla

Who got it: Liza Minnelli

When casting the now-classic comedy Arthur, the filmmakers looked at a lot of different actors and actresses for the roles of Arthur and his love interest Linda Marolla. According to IMDb, Gilda Radner was considered for the part of Linda, along with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, and Meryl Streep, before losing out to Liza Minnelli. Radner would have been at home in this sweet romantic comedy and it would have been much better (and more successful) than any of the rom-coms she made with her real-life husband Gene Wilder, but I don’t know if her chemistry with male lead Dudley Moore would have been as strong as Minnelli’s was. Minnelli was clearly a great choice here, doing a surprisingly good job with the screenplay’s snappy comic dialogue. Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli worked well together, but Gilda Radner’s Second City and SNL costar John Belushi allegedly turned down the part of Arthur, which makes a Belushi/Radner version of the movie seem like a missed opportunity.

Time Bandits (1981)

The role: Mrs. Ogre

Who got it: Katherine Helmond

In Michael Palin’s published collection of his 80s era diaries Halfway to Hollywood, the British comedian recalls a casting battle over the role of the ogre’s elderly wife in the movie Time Bandits. Palin wanted Ruth Gordon (Harold and Maude) for the part, but the studio was pushing for Gilda Radner, then hot off of SNL where she regularly played old lady Emily Litella. Says Palin, “She may do a great old lady, but Ruth Gordon is a great old lady.” Neither Gordon nor Radner won the part, as it ended up going to Soap actress Katherine Helmond.

Fatal Attraction (1987)

The role: Alex Forrest

Who got it: Glenn Close

According to IMDb, Gilda Radner was considered for the part of psychotic stalker Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction. This was a very different movie, both in terms of genre and the character she was playing, from anything Radner had done in the past, but maybe it would have been cool to see her switch things up a bit. The filmmakers ended up going with the much more logical casting choice of Glenn Close. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer right around the time of Fatal Attraction’s production, though, and sadly didn’t film another movie before her death.

Hosting Saturday Night Live (1988)

With her cancer in remission at the time, Gilda Radner was scheduled to return to host Saturday Night Live in the spring of 1988, which would have made her the first female former castmember to host the show and only the second former member of the original cast (after Chevy Chase) to host. It would have been an excellent homecoming for Gilda Radner, as Lorne Michaels and a good chunk of the original writing staff had returned to SNL by this point, but a Writer’s Guild strike forced production on all TV shows and movies to shut down for a few months. By the time the strike was over, Gilda Radner’s cancer had returned and she wasn’t able to host the show before she passed away.

Gilda Radner died on May 20, 1989 - a Saturday. Radner’s friend and frequent costar Steve Martin was set to host SNL that night, but it was decided to scrap Martin’s prepared monologue and to have him use the time at the top of the show to tearfully say goodbye to Gilda and to introduce a clip of the two of them together in the classic sketch “Dancing in the Dark.” Not only one of the funniest SNL castmembers ever, but also one of the funniest people ever, Gilda Radner is still very much missed and is an inspiration to every generation of comedic performer that has followed in her footsteps. I’ll leave you with Steve Martin’s heartbreaking tribute to Gilda on the day of her passing. It’s a more honest and touching encapsulation of Radner’s life and legacy than anything I could possibly write:

Bradford Evans is sorry for making everyone sad.

The Lost Roles of Gilda Radner