Biography of Gilda Radner

Beloved Comedienne and Actress

Gilda Radner in limousine.
Gilda Radner made her mark as an actress and comedienne before dying of cancer at the age of 42.

Art Zelin/Getty Images

Gilda Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989) was an American comedienne and actress known for her satirical characters on "Saturday Night Live." She died of ovarian cancer at the age of 42, and was survived by her husband, actor Gene Wilder.

Early Years

Gilda Susan Radner was born on June 28, 1946 in Detroit, Michigan. She was the second child born to Herman Radner and Henrietta Dworkin. Gilda's father Herman was a successful businessman, and Gilda and her brother Michael enjoyed a childhood of privilege.

The Radners employed a nanny, Elizabeth Clementine Gillies, to help raise their children. Gilda was particularly close to "Dibby," and her childhood memories of her hard of hearing nanny would later inspire her to create the character Emily Litella on "Saturday Night Live."

Gilda's father ran the Seville Hotel in Detroit, and served a clientele that included musicians and actors who came to the city to perform. Herman Radner took young Gilda to see musicals and shows, and had a fondness for silly jokes that she shared. Her happy childhood was shattered in 1958, when her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor and subsequently suffered a stroke. Herman languished for two years before dying of cancer in 1960, when Gilda was just 14 years old.

As a child, Gilda dealt with stress by eating. Her mother, Henrietta, took 10-year-old Gilda to a doctor who prescribed her diet pills. Gilda would continue a pattern of gaining and losing weight into adulthood, and years later, would recount her battle with an eating disorder in her autobiography, "It's Always Something."


Gilda attended the Hampton Elementary School through the fourth grade, at least when she was in Detroit. Her mother didn't care for Michigan winters, and each November she would take Gilda and Michael to Florida until the spring. In her autobiography, Gilda recalled how this annual routine made it difficult for her to establish friendships with other children.

In fifth grade, she transferred to the prestigious Liggett School, which was then an all-girls school. She was active in the school's drama club, appearing in many plays throughout middle and high school. In her senior year, she served as the Class of 1964 vice president, and performed in the play "The Mouse That Roared."

After graduating high school, Gilda enrolled at the University of Michigan, where she majored in drama. She dropped out before earning her degree, however, and moved to Toronto with her sculptor boyfriend, Jeffrey Rubinoff.


Gilda Radner's first professional acting role was in the Toronto production of "Godspell" in 1972. The company included several future stars who would remain her lifelong friends: Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, and Eugene Levy. While in Toronto, she also joined the famed "Second City" improvisational troupe, where she performed with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi and established herself as a bona fide force in comedy.

Radner moved to New York City in 1973 to work on "The National Lampoon Radio Hour," a short-lived but influential weekly show. Though the show only lasted 13 months, "National Lampoon" brought together writers and performers who would push the boundaries of comedy for decades to come: Gilda, John Belushi, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Christopher Guest, and Richard Belzer, to name a few.

In 1975, Gilda Radner was the first performer cast for the inaugural season of "Saturday Night Live." As one of the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," Gilda wrote and performed in sketches with Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman, Garrett Morris, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd. She was nominated twice for an Emmy as a Supporting Actress on "SNL", and won the honor in 1978.

During her tenure from 1975 to 1980, Gilda created some of SNL's most memorable characters. She parodied Barbara Walters with her recurring Baba Wawa character, a tv journalist with a speech impediment. She based another of her most beloved characters on a local New York news anchor named Rose Ann Scamardella. Roseanne Roseannadanna was a consumer affairs reporter who couldn't stay on topic in the early "Weekend Update" segments. As punk rocker Candy Slice, Radner channelled Patti Smith. With Bill Murray, Gilda did a series of sketches featuring "The Nerds," Lisa Loopner and Todd DiLaMuca.

Gilda's characters were so well received, she took them to Broadway. "Gilda Radner – Live from New York" opened at the Winter Garden Theater on August 2, 1979, and ran for 51 performances. Besides Gilda, the cast included Don Novello (as Father Guido Sarducci), Paul Shaffer, Nils Nichols, and the "Candy Slice Group."

After her Broadway debut, Gilda Radner landed roles in several movies, including "First Family" with Bob Newhart and "Movers and Shakers" with Walter Matthau. She also appeared in three films with husband Gene Wilder: "Hanky Panky," "The Woman in Red," and "Haunted Honeymoon".

Personal Life

Gilda met her first husband, George Edward "G. E." Smith, when he was hired as a guitarist for her Broadway show "Gilda Live" in 1979. They married in early 1980. Gilda was still married to G. E. when she landed a role in a new Gene Wilder movie, "Hanky Panky," that began filming in 1981.

Already unhappy in her marriage to G. E. Smith, Gilda pursued a relationship with Wilder. Radner and Smith divorced in 1982. The relationship between Gilda and Gene Wilder was rocky at first. In an interview years later, Wilder said he found Gilda needy and demanding of his attention at first, so much so that they broke up for a time. They soon reconciled, however, and on September 18, 1984 1984, Gilda and Gene married while on vacation in France.


Gilda's "happy ever after" with Gene wouldn't last long, sadly. On October 21, 1986, she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer.

While filming "Haunted Honeymoon" the year before, Gilda couldn't understand why she constantly felt fatigued and rundown. She finally went to her internist for a physical exam, but the lab tests only showed a possibility of Epstein-Barr virus. The doctor reassured her that her symptoms were likely stress-induced, and not serious. When she started running a low grade fever, she was instructed to take acetaminophen.

Gilda's symptoms continued to worsen as time passed. She developed stomach and pelvic cramps that kept her in bed for days. Her gynecologist didn't find any cause for concern and referred her to a gastroenterologist. Every test came back normal, despite Gilda's deteriorating health. By the summer of 1986, she was experiencing excruciating pain in her thighs and had lost a startling amount of weight, with no obvious cause.

Finally, in October 1986, Gilda was admitted to a hospital in Los Angeles to undergo extensive testing. A CAT scan revealed a grapefruit-sized tumor in her abdomen. She underwent surgery to remove the tumor and had a complete hysterectomy, and immediately started a long course of chemotherapy. Doctors assured her that her prognosis was good.

In June of the following year, Gilda had completed the prescribed chemotherapy, and her doctor scheduled an exploratory surgery to make sure all signs of the cancer were gone. She was devastated to learn that it wasn't, and more chemotherapy was required. Over the next two years, Gilda endured treatments, tests, and surgeries that would ultimately fail to eradicate the cancer. Gilda Radner died on May 20, 1989 at Cedars-Sinae Medical Center in Los Angeles, at the age of 42.

After Gilda's death, Gene Wilder joined two of her friends, cancer psychotherapist Joanna Bull and broadcaster Joel Siegel, to found a network of cancer support centers. Gilda's Clubs, as the centers are known, help patients living with cancer by providing emotional and social support as they go through treatment.


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