Gilda Radner was a riotous comedian and founding cast member of Saturday Night Live. But, throughout her life, there wasn’t much to laugh about. Whether it was her long list of ex-lovers or her heartbreaking fate, it seemed like Radner was cursed. Try laughing at these facts about Gilda Radner, late night’s tragic comedienne.
Gilda Radner seemed to have come into the world at the right time. She grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the booming post-WWII years. And her parents, Henrietta and Herman Radner, were wealthy Jewish professionals. In fact, Radner had it so easy in her childhood that she even grew up with a nanny, “Dibby”. Unfortunately, her sad fate would be a far cry from these early happy years.
Despite her apparently easy childhood, Radner still had her struggles in life. Decades later, in her shocking tell-all It’s Always Something, Radner made a sad confession—one that stunned fans who were used to her cheerful characters. She admitted to having a severe anxiety disorder that she had struggled with since her youth.
Did she always have a bad feeling about what lay ahead?
Throughout her life, Radner’s anxiety wreaked havoc on her health. In fact, she barely made it past the age of ten. In her autobiography, Radner wrote that she had struggled throughout her life with various eating disorders.
It’s too bad that she couldn’t find a witch doctor to break her curse before things turned really ugly.
Before she found comedy as a coping mechanism for her anxiety, Radner turned to something less healthy. Food. And lots of it. At the age of just nine or ten, Radner tipped the scales at a whopping 160 pounds.
Her mother was so concerned that she took little Radner to see a doctor right away—but they went to disturbing lengths to “help” her.
Radner’s doctor intervened by prescribing the “diet pill” Dexedrine. But it must have worked too well. A few years later, Radner ended up in the hospital once again.
But not because she was too big. Quite the opposite, in fact. Radner only weighed 93 pounds and still complained that she “felt fat”. Those kinds of dramatic highs and lows stalked her throughout her career.
Radner managed to recover from her body image issues in time to save her life—and find love. She dropped out of her final year of university and followed her boyfriend to Toronto because she “wanted to be his wife and a homemaker”. For all intents and purposes, it looked like Radner had managed to shake the shadow off her back.
But appearances can be deceiving.
Gilda Radner knew that, with her big hair and bigger personality, she wasn’t the “perfect example of [her] gender”. And others agreed. The composer Stephen Schwartz commented that Radner was neither a “classic beauty” nor a “great singer”. But he couldn’t deny that there was something magnetic about her that drew audiences in—and she was about to make it work for her.
Despite the fact that she thought she was nothing to look at, Radner still found her way into showbiz.
While in Toronto, she starred in the wildly popular musical Godspell. And it was a godsend. While on set, Radner finally came into her own as a magnetic comedienne alongside the likes of Eugene Levy and Martin Short.
And while the musical launched the careers of some real icons, there were also fireworks backstage.
While working on Godspell, Gilda Radner found more than just her comedic chops. She found her second true love.
Radner ditched her Toronto boyfriend and began a tumultuous two-year relationship with Martin Short. According to a 2014 interview with Howard Stern, Short and Radner had an on-again, off-again relationship. But their whirlwind romance also had a dark side.
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For the most part, Radner kept her silence on her relationship with Short.
Even in her autobiography, she didn’t share the details of their hot and cold romance. But Short didn’t hold back about Radner—and he made a heartbreaking revelation. In his interview with Stern, Short revealed that Radner was an unhappy person and that she became angry with him for not understanding her sadness.
With her luck, who could blame her?
After Godspell, Radner knew that she was destined to make people laugh—even if she would suffer terribly in the process. With a successful musical under her belt, she joined The Second City comedy troupe and sharpened her chops. With her magnetic personality and knack for comedy, it only took her a few years to make it to the big leagues.
Throughout her career, Radner developed something of a penchant for dating her castmates. Even after her tumultuous relationship with Martin Short, she had no problem “connecting” with her coworkers. While working on the Radio Hour, Radner began dating Brian-Doyle Murray, the brother of Bill Murray. Of course, she would have to complete the set.
In 1975, Gilda Radner forever changed the face of comedy when she became a founding member of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players”. At the time, Radner had no way of knowing that the comedy sketch show would go on to become the wildly popular Saturday Night Live.
She also had no way of knowing just what kind of scandals and controversies she and her co-stars were in for.
Saturday Night Live is a cultural staple of late-night TV because it has been making people laugh for decades. It’s also been cursing its cast members since its pilot episode. Gilda Radner is just one of eight SNL cast members who have met an untimely and bitter end at the hands of the “Saturday Night Live Curse”. And she had it worse than most.
Before the SNL curse could claim Radner, she managed to hit some highs. Throughout her career, she became famous for some of her many recurring characters on SNL. And she based one of those, Emily Litella, off of her childhood nanny. But the bespectacled pretend news anchor was the furthest thing from nanny-like.
In fact, one wonders what kind of nanny “Dibby” must have been. Well, fans eventually got their answer.
During a 1983 appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, Radner had a surprise for the audience. Instead of simply doing her “Emily Litella” character, Radner thought she would treat everyone to the real deal. Radner phoned her 90-year-old nanny live on television and broadcast the conversation for the audience to hear.
Forget Radner. “Dibby” was the real star.
Radner’s character, Emily Litella, broke live television standards and rules all of the time—both in sketches and in real life. When Radner appeared in character alongside fellow comedienne Jane Curtin, she became one of the first people in history to say the B-word on live television—but unfortunately, it was another B-word that haunted her behind the scenes.
Even at the height of her career on SNL, Radner found herself struggling with her anxiety. And it had devastating side effects. Reportedly, Radner’s childhood eating disorders returned and she became bulimic. However, the reemergence of her trauma might have had more to do with her dating life than with her anxiety.
Radner’s habit of dating her coworkers continued in her SNL days. But the family that laughs together doesn’t necessarily stay together. One of Radner’s SNL romances was with Bill Murray. If you’ll recall, Radner had already dated Murray’s brother while working on Radio Hour. Sadly, their romance lasted about an hour.
Gilda Radner did just about everything she could to keep the details of her relationship with Bill Murray private—but it backfired spectacularly. Despite her efforts, some stories leaked out to the press. In addition to her bulimia, the tabloids learned that Radner and Murray had broken up.
No one really knows exactly what happened except to say that it “ended badly”. And that Radner never really recovered.
Gilda Radner might have suffered from crippling anxiety but, as a comedian, she was utterly fearless. One of her recurring characters on SNL was the baby-voiced “Baba Wawa”, a spoof on Barbara Walters. If SNL’s millions of viewers were laughing, however, the iconic news anchor herself was not. Walters apparently hated Radner’s impression.
And she’d make sure to let her know.
It wasn’t enough that Radner was going on national television making fun of Barbara Walters. She had to do it to her face.
A while later, Walters and Radner just so happened to be in the south of France at the same time.
By chance, they also ended up at the same cafe and Walters joined Radner’s table after she went to the washroom. When Radner returned, she went white fearing that Walters was going to make a scene. Instead, Walters gave Radner a big hug and said that she was now a huge fan.
Radner made her way through the SNL cast faster than a bad punchline. After breaking things off with the Murray brothers, Radner began dating Dan Aykroyd. If the details of the Radner-Murray relationship are scarce, then the details of the Radner-Aykroyd affair are non-existent. The only thing we can say for sure is that it didn’t last.
But it did leave a scar—an emotional one.
The “Saturday Night Live Curse” might have to do with untimely death, but it might as well apply to doomed romances as well. After giving Aykroyd the ax, Radner moved on to dating Harold Ramis.
Sadly, it was another romance that blew up in her face.
After so many failed relationships, Radner just wanted to put the whole thing behind her. Unfortunately for her, her timing couldn’t have been worse…
Radner’s many failed relationships with her SNL castmates left a bitter taste in her mouth. So much so that she once told a friend that she couldn’t watch the 1984 classic Ghostbusters. Because the film starred Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, it was just too much for her to bear.
So she ghosted them.
Radner did, however, have some fond memories of her male SNL castmates.
It’s easy to understand how Radner’s castmates all fell in love with her. Curse or no curse. In her autobiography, Radner recalled of her SNL days, “All the guys liked to have me around because I would laugh at them till I peed in my pants and tears rolled out of my eyes”. Who doesn’t want a friend like that? Unfortunately, it would make losing her so much harder…
Even though Gilda Radner was close with her SNL castmates, she never actually stooped to their level. According to fellow comedian Alan Zweibel, at the time that Radner was on SNL, illicit substances were common. But Radner never touched the stuff and openly chastised her castmates for doing it.
Clearly, it was time for her to move on.
By the time Radner left the show that she had helped to start in 1980, she was practically a household name. But she had mixed feelings about it. Saturday Night Live historians recount Radner’s mercurial reaction to stardom by saying that she was “angry when she was approached, and upset when she wasn't”. She did, after all, have some strange fans.
Radner received the strangest (and funniest) fan mail of any comedian. After submitting a blood and urine test, she received a letter from the lab containing the results—and a curious note. “Dear Gilda,” the note read, “I'm a big fan, and I wanted to express my admiration for you. It was a great honor to analyze your urine”.
With those types of devoted fans, she seemed destined for greater success—but translating that to reality wasn’t an easy task.
Following her SNL days, Radner tried her hand at the stage. She opened with a one-woman Broadway show where she performed all of her material that had been too risqué for primetime television. While the Broadway show was a resounding success, the theatrical release was a total flop.
Fortunately, she wasn’t walking away from the stage empty-handed.
While working on her one-woman Broadway production, Radner continued her practice of dating her coworkers. This time, she picked up with the musician GE Smith. Shortly after falling in love, the two eloped in an informal yet romantic civil ceremony.
Radner wore a simple crinoline dress while Smith rocked up in his “best jeans”. Sadly, the union was doomed to failure.
Radner’s Hollywood career might not have been the resounding success she hoped for, but she got something out of it. In 1982, she starred alongside Gene Wilder in Hanky Panky. Given what happened on set, Hanky Panky was a very appropriate name for the film. In her autobiography, Radner said that it was “love at first sight” when she met Wilder.
There was just one problem.
She was a recently married woman.
According to Gene Wilder, Gilda Radner was the one who initiated the romance. One night, while the two stars were reviewing changes to the script in Wilder’s hotel room, Radner pounced. In his 2005 memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger, Wilder claimed that Radner pinned him down on the bed and playfully shouted, “I have a plan for fun”! And as for Wilder?
Wilder confessed that he found Radner “radiant” and had to fight every urge in his body from taking her then and there. But then he had a brutal wake-up call. Wilder remembered that she was still a married woman—and he was, himself, twice divorced already. Not wanting to ruin a third marriage (even if it wasn’t his own), Wilder brushed Radner’s advance aside and sent her on her way.
But, for the first time in her life, Radner saw a chance to be happy and break her curse.
She just had to break her marriage first.
In 1981, just after leaving SNL, Radner was reportedly meant to star in Neighbors alongside John Belushi and her ex-boyfriend, Dan Aykroyd. But the wounds of her breakup with Aykroyd must have been too fresh because she turned down the role to work on Hanky Panky with Wilder. If anyone could break her curse, it would have been Wilder.
Radner couldn’t deny her love for Wilder. And GE Smith must have noticed it. Shortly after Hanky Panky (and that nearly magical night in Wilder’s hotel room), Radner’s marriage to Smith began to deteriorate. It wasn’t long before the marriage disintegrated altogether. But it’s not like Wilder was waiting for her in the wings.
Immediately after her divorce, Radner began dating Wilder.
She felt that her world had changed “from black and white to Technicolor”. But there was something she didn’t know. Wilder didn’t exactly feel the same. For his part, Wilder thought that Radner was too young for him and too clingy for his liking. Further, he felt that the two “didn’t get along well”.
But there was more keeping them together than there was pulling them apart.
Despite the fact that Radner and Wilder got on like cats and dogs, they couldn’t deny that there was something special about their love. In Wilder’s own words, he felt that he and Radner were “temperamentally wrong” but also “divinely right”. Whatever they were, they were madly in love—but they still faced a major stumbling block.
Radner and Wilder had been dating for two years by 1984.
That year, they were meant to star in The Woman in Red together. But just before filming started, Radner’s dog fell ill and Wilder took off to the set alone. The sudden and unexpected separation, however, was more than their lovestruck hearts could bear. The minute Wilder left, it struck him.
He thought to himself, “I should marry this girl”. And so he did.
As soon as they finished filming The Woman in Red, Radner ditched her red dress and donned a white one. She and Wilder finally tied the knot in St Tropez. And the honeymoon just continued from there. One of their mutual friends recalled those first few years of Radner’s and Wilder’s marriage calling them “constant honeymooners”.
But it wasn’t all rose petals and champagne.
Radner thought that she and Wilder had almost everything.
The only thing they were missing was a family of their own—but she faced a devastating problem. Radner managed to become pregnant several times, only to have her pregnancies end the same way—in painful miscarriages. But was it simply bad luck? Or was it something much worse?
Radner began experiencing inexplicable bouts of fatigue. Things became unbearable when, on a trip to Paris, Radner suddenly collapsed on the street. Because her father had passed away from a brain tumor, Radner feared the worst and sought out several doctors. She pressed every doctor with the same desperate questions, “It’s not cancer, is it”?
Radner’s worst nightmare came true when, during a surgical operation, doctors found a tumor. A really big one.
Radner had Stage 4 ovarian cancer. Even through her pain, however, Radner kept her comedic chops sharp. She often slipped into her old SNL characters and mocked her cancer cells saying, “Hey, what are you tryin’ to do in here? Make me sick”?
It wasn’t pretty, however, when the laughing stopped.
Humor had always been how Radner coped with her anxiety.
But the fear that she felt from her cancer diagnosis was more than she could bear—and it had brutal consequences. Wilder later recalled that there were times when Radner would break down and lash out at him and he would shout back, “I don’t know how to help you”!
It seemed like, for all of her magnetism, Radner was taking her final bow.
Once news of her diagnosis broke out, Radner’s many friends rushed to her side—including her ex-boyfriends. The last time that Radner saw her old SNL castmates was at a party in Los Angeles. Tearfully, her ex-boyfriends Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd carried her around the party so that she could say her final goodbyes.
To her surprise, after multiple rounds of chemotherapy, Radner went into remission. For the time being, it looked to Radner like she had beaten cancer—and her curse. In fact, Radner even celebrated her recovery with a full feature in Life magazine and a promise to host an episode of SNL, the show she helped to pioneer, in a few months.
But once again, she was the victim of bad timing.
A writers’ strike postponed Radner’s scheduled return to SNL—but that’s not all she was facing. In September 1988, Radner’s cancer returned with a vengeance. Her doctors scheduled her for a CT scan. While they wheeled her off to the exam room, Radner feared that she would never regain consciousness—so she made an utterly devastating plea. She begged Wilder, “Help me out of here”!
She was more right than she knew.
Just as she had predicted, Gilda Radner slipped into a coma during her CT scan and never regained consciousness. Three days later, Radner drew her last breath. Wilder lamented, “While she was conscious, I never said goodbye”. But, in a way, Radner managed to say her final farewells to her millions of fans.
When news broke of Radner’s untimely death, host Steve Martin and the cast of SNL were preparing for the season finale that night. They scrapped what they had, and instead, made an absolutely heartbreaking tribute to a comedy legend. A tearful Martin began the show, which then played a clip of a 1978 sketch.
It begins as a straightforward nightclub scene, before Radner and Martin fall into an uproarious yet beautiful parody of an Old Hollywood dance routine—simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking, just like Gilda.
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