Comedian Gilda Radner, who made millions laugh with the zany characters she created as a member of the original cast of television’s “Saturday Night Live,” died Saturday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after a long struggle with ovarian cancer.
The 42-year-old performer had fought the disease for 2 1/2 years and had recently written a book about her struggle. She died in her sleep, with her husband, actor Gene Wilder, at her side, friends said.
Radner entered Cedars-Sinai on Wednesday for treatment of side effects from earlier treatments, according to a hospital spokesman.
“She fought hard,” said associate Rachel McCallister. “She was a very brave and courageous lady, and she didn’t give up easily.”
As a gawky, squawky-voiced satirist, with a frizzy tangle of hair, Radner created such characters as Roseanne Roseannadana, a gross, lisping newscaster; Emily Litella, a dithery, confused editorialist; Candy Slice, a masochistic punk rock star, and co-ed Rhonda Weiss, a gum-chewing Jewish “princess” from Long Island.
Her characterizations brought her an Emmy in 1978 for outstanding performance as an actress on “Saturday Night Live,” where she was a member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players with Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, who all went on to stardom.
The actress fought cancer with anger, hope and humor, according to an account of her struggle detailed in her book, “It’s Always Something,” which will soon be in stores.
‘Most Unfunny Thing’
In excerpts in the June issue of Redbook, Radner wrote: “Cancer is probably the most unfunny thing in the world, but I’m a comedienne, and even cancer wasn’t going to stop me from seeing the humor in what I was going through. The last thing that I wanted was to be tragic.”
Born in Michigan, Radner sometimes referred to herself as “this Jewish girl from Detroit.” She studied drama at the University of Michigan, leaving to join a Canadian production of “Godspell,” the religious rock musical, staged in Toronto.
She moved on to become a member of Toronto’s “Second City” improvisational comedy troupe, an offshoot of the famed Chicago company. Her fellow performers included Aykroyd and Murray, who would be with Radner again when “Saturday Night Live” premiered on NBC in October, 1975.
While still on the show, Radner appeared in 1979 in a short-lived, one-woman Broadway show called “Gilda Live,” which was produced as a movie a year later and as an album, “Live From New York Gilda Radner.”
She left “Saturday Night Live” in 1980, making five films and appearing in a Broadway play in the next six years. The movies included “The Woman in Red” and “Haunted Honeymoon,” both written and directed by Wilder, whom she met on the set of the film “Hanky Panky” in 1981 and married three years later in southern France. They had homes in Southern California and Connecticut.
Not Quite Grown Up
“I’m at the edge of growing up,” Radner said in a July, 1986, interview. “I don’t miss ‘Saturday Night Live.’ I feel less of a need for the fulfillment that performance used to give. . . . I don’t have to do everything right away. As long as I can walk and jump, I’ll still perform, but I no longer feel such a compulsion.”
Radner did not know then that her greatest challenge lay ahead. She learned that about two months later when doctors told her she had ovarian cancer and discovered during hysterectomy surgery that the malignancy had spread to her liver and bowel.
“The three weeks I spent at the hospital recovering from surgery, I amused myself by making the nurses laugh and racing up and down the halls with my IV stand while Gene chased me,” she wrote in her book. “How could I be happy under the circumstances? I don’t really know--except that I discovered that I have a strong spirit and a powerful will to survive.”
Still, she said, it was impossible for her not to feel sorry for herself when she became ill and her hair fell out because of chemotherapy treatment, and she started to introduce herself by saying, “I used to be Gilda Radner. Because that was how I felt--that now I was someone else.”
Radner credited a “sprinkling of angels,” including Wilder, and doctors, nurses and fellow cancer patients for helping her fight the disease. “Gene never gave up,” she said. “He believed in me and never treated me like my days were numbered.”
Joined Self-Help Group
Prompted by a psychotherapist, she joined the Wellness Community, a cancer self-help group in Santa Monica whose members were all fighting different stages of the disease.
“I was learning that death is part of life,” Radner wrote. “It seems to me now that as long as we have the gift of life, the only tragedy is to allow part of ourselves--our spirit, our creativity, our glorious uniqueness--to die.”
Radner’s friends were stunned by news of her death. Aykroyd said in a statement, “I loved her like a sister. My thoughts are with Gene and her family.” The current “Saturday Night Live” cast planned an immediate tribute to her.
Friends who attended the all-girls Liggett school with Radner in Detroit said the actress missed a 25th class reunion two weeks ago. “We really missed her, and we didn’t know she was as bad as she was,” said classmate Betty Irwin.
Besides Wilder, Radner leaves her mother, Henrietta, and a brother, Michael. Memorial services will be private. The family requested that in lieu of flowers donations be sent to the Wellness Community.