By Jenny Song
America’s Funny Girl
Gilda Radner’s death 20 years ago raised new awareness of a disease that women still face too frequently today
By Jenny Song
For five seasons on Saturday Night Live (SNL), Gilda Radner bewitched millions of Americans with her big, frizzy hair and bright, squinty smile. She immortalized characters like Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa and Lisa Loopner.
As the sincerely befuddled and high-spirited Emily Litella, Radner made audiences laugh by furiously defending topics like violins on television or eagle’s rights. When corrected that it was actually violence on television
and equal rights, she’d grin sheepishly, uttering the famous phrase, “Never mind.”
She was cute and charming. A comedienne at heart, Radner was witty and funny both on-screen and off.
“But she was much deeper than that,” says Pam Katz Zakheim, a childhood friend. “Gilda was an extraordinarily intelligent and an extraordinarily kind and thoughtful individual. And she was always like that.”
Radner would easily recall the name and minute life details of the grocery store’s cashier, says Judy Levy, her childhood best friend. “If you sat next to her on an airplane, you’d get off the plane thinking you
were going to be friends for life.”
If Radner baked cookies, she was just as likely to make them for the president of the network as she was for the person who swept up after the show, says Radner’s brother, Michael. “What people saw on television was really the genuine her.”
Though it has been 20 years since Radner died of ovarian cancer, her legacy is still very much alive today. Radner’s brother, who has a Google alert set to notify him when the online search engine finds the words “Gilda Radner” or “Gilda’s Club,” says he still gets 20 to 30 alerts a day from people mentioning her in blogs and news stories or quoting one of her sayings. “For a large group of people,” he says, “she’s a main character in their lives.”
A Rising Star
Born in Detroit on June 28, 1946, Radner was the only daughter of Herman Radner and Henrietta Dworkin. According to her brother, she was the apple of her father’s eye. In fact, Radner’s love for show business may have been sparked by her father. “He had a zip in his step and a twinkle in his eye. … He had the presence of somebody in show business,” Radner wrote in her 1989 autobiography, It’s Always Something. When her father became ill after being diagnosed with a brain tumor and suffering a stroke, it devastated her. She was just 14 when he died, leaving a lasting mark on her life.