Michigan-born but first flexing her professional comic muscles while living in Toronto, Canada, Radner consorted with a cadre of budding comedian/actors including Martin Short, Bill Murray, Dave Thomas, Dan Ackroyd, John Belushi and others from the Second City school of comic actors who were all beginning their careers. As a result of her impressive work with this budding generation of gifted performers Gilda Radner was chosen in 1975 to be a member of the initial cast of NBC's new late-night comedy/variety show Saturday Night Live which debuted on October 11, 1975.
Here's an interesting clip of NBC late-night host Tom Snyder just days before the SNL premiere as he interviews creator Lorne Michael and his nascent group of comedy innovators:
Gilda Radner's five-year stint on Saturday Night Live gave us characters which are still part of the comedy canon: Emily Litella, Roseanna Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa to name but a few. She was singled out and won an Emmy Award for her work during the 1977 season in addition to becoming a beloved audience favorite. Viewers fell in love with her all-around performing prowess which combined musical talent, a knack for physical humor, general cuteness and spot-on comic instincts which gave her trademark characters the spark of life plus an extra dimension of comedic relevance.
Let's look at a couple of examples of her work on SNL, beginning with this enthusiastic intro:
This is one of Bill Murray's lounge singer bits with the entire cast participating, including Radner:
There's not a lot of Gilda Radner-era Saturday Night Live material on the web, but you can find a small selection if you look: the famous Steve Martin/Gilda "Dancing in the Dark" comic dance routine is available for viewing at this link (click here), and Yahoo Screen has a selection of high-quality clips including "Nerd Prom" and several Baba Wawa sketches available at this link (click here).
Radner was also among the pantheon of celebrities who made a guest appearance on the long-running The Muppet Show, hers in 1978:
Gilda featured her collection of characters in a one-woman theater showcase Gilda Radner: Live from New York which ran in August and September of 1979 and was filmed -- thank goodness -- and is still availble for purchase. Here are a few bits from the well-received production:
After leaving Saturday Night Live Gilda transitioned into an short big-screen career including 1982's Hanky Panky where she co-starred opposite actor Gene Wilder. They ended up falling in love, marrying in 1984 and making a total of three films together. It was while on location in England for Haunted Honeymoon that Gilda fell ill and ultimately, after months of misdiagnosis, learned she had ovarian cancer. Her treatments afforded her a remission and gave her the time to pen her autobiography It's Always Something. In May of 1989 she recorded the audio version of the book, and only a few weeks later she passed away on May 20, 1989.
Here is a short excerpt from the book backed by some photos (not sure it's Radner's narration, though):
Close to the year's anniversary of her death Gene Wilder appeared on Face to Face with Connie Chung talking about Gilda's legacy:
Part of that legacy was the Gilda's Club cancer support centers which have offered assistance and camaraderie to countless people over the years. There was a controversy a couple of years ago over at least one chapter moving to change its name, ostensibly because they thought Radner's name had ceased to be relevant. There was also a merger with the Cancer Support Community but many Gilda's Club locations proudly retain their original name, as does the NYC chapter.
The Gilda Radner-era of Saturday Night Live was a high point for the series, a more innocent time perhaps -- notwithstanding the tales of rampant drug use -- that was the perfect incubator for the sweet and immensely talented spirit that infused her work. The Flaming Nose remembers her fondly on what would have been her 68th birthday.
Gilda Radner, gone much too soon...