When a child is growing up, they often look up to & hope to have a life similar to their parents, but some kids, the artistic types, find their idols within the arts community. There is one person who I have idolized since the age of 5. That person was & always will be Gilda Radner. I was able to grow up watching this silly, talented & smart girl from Detroit pave the way for those of us to follow her lead. Admittedly, I am not a comedian. I mean, I’m a very funny person, but I can’t do it on purpose, on cue. I admire that ability in those who possess it.
Gilda Susan Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989) was an American comedian and actress, best known as one of the original cast members of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1978. (stolen from Wikipedia)
As a very young girl, the Not Ready For Prime Time Players came into my life every Saturday night beginning in 1975. I can still vividly remember that very first episode, hosted by the great George Carlin & featuring an odd, but funny Andy Kaufman. It was amazing to my young, sponge-like mind. These skits, these people, these musical artists have stuck with me ever since. Yet, Gilda always stands out to me.
It was obvious to me, even at five years old, that what I was witnessing was revolutionary. Again, Gilda was the driving force of my interest. Judy Miller….yeah I did that in my room, with my robe acting as a princess cape. That was my favorite of all her characters. She was just fearless & full of joy when she was Judy. She had the courage to be child like, which can be really hard for people to do, but Gilda wasn’t too scared to get out there & be silly.
But, how did Gilda end up on Saturday Night Live anyway? Well, it wasn’t an easy road, she worked harder than I believe she gets credit for. There were many road blocks, including the men in the Improv/Sketch Comedy scene at the time. Some of whom she would eventually work with on SNL.
Growing up a Jewish girl in Detroit, cared for by a nanny she called Dibby, who she was VERY close to, she began her battle with weight at the age of nine, even turning to diet pills at ten years old. Gilda was very close to her father, who passed away when she was 12. He owned & managed the Seville Hotel in Detroit & often took Gilda on trips to New York, where they went to Broadway shows. These experiences inspired something deep inside of her.
She made her acting debut in Godspell in 1972, while living in Toronto. This ultimately led her to Second City in Toronto, then to National Lampoon & eventually SNL.
I don’t want to turn this into another Wiki page, she already has one. What I would like to accomplish here is something I have never attempted. I want to honor her work & her life, from my eyes.
As a young fan, I followed every step of Gilda’s life & career. From the outside, Saturday Night Live appeared to be a dream job. This was the 70’s however, and drugs were a big part of most peoples lives on the show, but not Gilda. She was a fantastic character actress, with standouts like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner & Babwa Wawa.
By 1979, Gilda was appearing in a one woman show on Broadway called “Gilda, Live” It was & still is absolutely brilliant. I watch it often & still laugh. One of my all time characters that she brought to Broadway from SNL was Candy Slice. She would just lose herself in the character. I was so amazed by the level of her talent & the fact that she didn’t seem to be aware of it. I could relate to that.
What Gilda really wanted in her life was love, marriage & children. This, of course, wasn’t something that was easy to come by for a girl in comedy. She dated co-star Bill Murray & then married G.E. Smith, the musical director for the show.
Then there was Gene.
Gilda has said that meeting Gene Wilder was “Love at first sight” on the set of Hanky Panky, even though she was still married. She eventually got the man of her dreams. From reading her autobiography, she explains in great detail what she went through to catch him & get him to marry her. I realize that sounds kinda desperate, but it wasn’t, it was true love & she knew it. They were married in 1984 in France. Okay, maybe it was a little desperate, but who cares, the woman knew what she wanted & wasn’t afraid to do whatever it took to achieve her goal. Since her death Gene has written in detail his side of their marriage. It is sometimes surprising, heartbreaking & seemingly narcissistic on his part, but it does give the reader a glimpse into the flawed & insecure woman she sadly was. Despite all that though, Gilda did end up happy & in love with the man of her dreams, even if he was a bit cold emotionally.
Gilda was diagnosed with ovarian cancer after nearly a year of searching for a reason for the severe pain & fatigue she was suffering with. She had always wanted to be a mother & she very openly discusses her struggle to become pregnant in her book. I have read It’s Always Something more times than I can count & like the Wikipedia page I won’t go into a play by play of the text. I will say that her 2 year battle with cancer, the awareness she brought with her fight & her devastating loss to this horrible disease is, much like her career, legendary. After Gilda passed, Gene established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai to screen high-risk candidates (such as women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent) and run basic diagnostic tests. Because of her battle with cancer, Gilda is affecting & saving the lives of countless women. The first Gildas Club opened in 1995, helping provide support for survivors & their families. I have volunteered with Gildas Clubs since the late 90’s, including the first & second Gildas LaughFest in Grand Rapids, MI.I am getting ready to head back there this March.
Gilda will never be forgotten, thanks to the internet & all the wonderful television and film work she has done. She has affected my life in more ways than I can account for in this blog post. She wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t what some considered to be “classically beautiful” (though I think she was very beautiful). What I believe made Gilda so special was her ability to find the funny in every situation, the way she would just shrug it off & say “It’s always something”. She was talented far beyond her comedy beginnings. She may not have made the best choices in roles, but she based her decisions in her personal happiness. In her private time she struggled a great deal with insecurity & defeatism. In the end though, she left a permanent mark on this world & I am forever grateful.
My greatest hope is that Gilda knew how special, how loved, how amazing she was. She was an icon & I’d like to believe that she will live on by continuing to make people laugh for generations to come.
Thank you Gilda, for making the world brighter with your presence, your humor, your love & your beauty. You changed everything!
Please check out the links to learn more or to relive the memories of Gilda.