Gilda Radner’s Lasting Legacy: ‘SNL’ Pioneer Set the Bar for Using Her Celebrity to Help Others Facing Cancer

Gilda Radner Photo Essay
Courtesy of NBCU Photo Bank

Gilda Radner was worried no one would remember her.

In 1988, as she grappled with ovarian cancer, Radner’s longtime friend and collaborator Alan Zweibel was persuading her to do a guest shot on his Showtime series “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” one night as they walked along the sand in Santa Monica.

Radner was hesitant. The toll that cancer and chemotherapy had taken on her body, plus the fact that she hadn’t been on TV much in years, made the “Saturday Night Live” and Second City legend nervous about facing a studio audience.

“Just as I was about to say ‘Gilda, don’t be stupid,’ she stopped short and said, ‘But you know something, Zweibel, I have to do your show,’” he recalls. “‘Comedy is the only weapon I have against this fucker.’”

Radner’s salty defiance was a prime example of her courageous spirit. More than three decades after her death at age 42 in 1989, her influence as a performer and writer has only grown as new generations discover her signature work.

Equally powerful is the enduring example that Radner set by the way she handled the blow of dealing with cancer at such a young age. Her public profile was magnified by her 1984 marriage to comedy superstar Gene Wilder. As her health deteriorated, Radner worked to raise awareness about the need for early detection and for better support systems for cancer patients and their families.

Radner was on the cover of Life magazine with spiky short hair to promote wellness groups and the new wave of holistic mind-body approaches to cancer treatment that she’d experienced. She wrote a memoir, “It’s Always Something,” published weeks after her death, that is by turns candid, heartbreaking and hilarious in detailing her odyssey through misdiagnoses, surgeries and two rounds of aggressive chemo treatments.

Friends say the way Radner carried herself — sitting courtside at Laker games, attending industry parties with Wilder and shopping outings with them — was inspiring. She fashioned scarfs and turbans around her head as she lost her hair to chemo. She easily cracked jokes both dark and silly about her predicament.

“She was a normal person, except that she was incredibly funny and talented,” says Rachel McCallister, chairman of MPRM Communications and a publicity veteran who represented Radner in her final years. “We always had a lot to talk about that had nothing to do with work.”

Radner grew up in 1950s Detroit and in Florida. She got her start in the early 1970s with the launch of the Toronto chapter of the renowned Chicago-based Second City comedy troupe. She honed her skills performing in revues with such future stars as John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy, Joe O’Flaherty, Rosemary Radcliffe and Catherine O’Hara.

Radner was beloved for her mastery of characters, from the crotchety malaprop-afflicted Emily Litella (“nevermind”) to the bombastic, frizzy-haired Roseanne Roseannadanna to punk rocker Candy Slice and many others. Those who knew Radner best say an element of the real Gilda shone through in every one.

Talented as she was as a writer and performer, Radner was also endowed with a natural warmth and a sunny, albeit neurotic, disposition. “She was the one who organized birthday parties for the cast and made cookies for the crew” in the early “SNL” days, says castmate Laraine Newman.

Newman and Radner were close during their respective 1975-80 tenures on the show, but the two lost touch after that. Except on Newman’s birthday. The actor, who recently published her own audio memoir, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” on Audible, recalls receiving a surprise delivery of sushi more than once as a birthday gift from Radner.

At the end of her life, Radner found solace in attending support groups offered by Santa Monica’s Wellness Group organization, which at the time was a groundbreaking approach to caring for both the mental and physical needs of cancer patients.

In 1995, as a tribute, Wilder and a circle of Radner’s close friends established the nonprofit Gilda’s Club, which helped launch wellness facilities in New York, Detroit, Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other major cities.

In 2009, Gilda’s Club formally merged with Wellness Group. But the mission has not changed: to honor Radner’s memory by offering the life-affirming gift of community, free of charge, to cancer patients and their loved ones.

In the heart of Greenwich Village, Gilda’s Club NYC offers a host of services for patients, children, caregivers and loved ones. In pandemic times, the club has expanded its reach through virtual programs that are needed more than ever.

Because of the organization’s roots, “there is this humor and whimsy that is always a part of who we are and what we do,” says Lily Safani, longtime CEO of Gilda’s Club NYC. “It’s a very optimistic place. What we do is take the stigma out of having cancer. When our members come through our doors, they’re not living with that stigma anymore.”

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Gilda Radner stood out as a writer and performer with exceptional gifts even against the stiff competition at Second City Toronto, as shown in this 1974 promotional photo featuring Eugene Levy, Dan Aykroyd, Radner, Rosemary Radcliffe and John Candy. Variety was a fan from the start. “Gilda Radner impresses most of all, crisply turning in an assortment of cuckoo parts,” our critic observed in an August 1974 review of “Hello Dali.” Courtesy of The Second City Archives
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Perhaps the most memorable of Radner’s “SNL” characters, Roseanne Roseannadanna was the long-winded, no-filter, loud-mouthed health and consumer affairs correspondent for “SNL’s” “Weekend Update.” She sported a pyramid-shaped helmet of hair and had a tendency to veer into TMI territory. Radner gave this most outrageous character a touch of herself by having Roseannadanna spout one of Radner’s late father’s favorite expressions, “It’s always something!” Courtesy of NBCU Photo Bank
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Radner’s famously misguided Emily Litella character, the hearing-challenged “Weekend Update” commentator, was inspired by the real- life live-in nanny, Elizabeth Clementine Gillies, known as “Dibby,” who helped raise Radner and her brother. Dibby was an “indomitable spirit,” Radner wrote in her memoir, “who got everything wrong but was emphatic about it until she found out she had misheard.” Litella’s catchphrase of “nevermind” also came straight from Dibby. Courtesy of NBCU Photo Bank
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When she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in October 1986, Radner’s first thought was how she could possibly “make cancer funny,” as she wrote in her memoir. “How am I going to get people to laugh about it?” Friends admired her drive to maintain a normal life even as her body showed the physical effects of chemotherapy treatments. “She exposed herself and her vulnerabilities,” says Alan Zweibel, the original “SNL” writer who was Radner’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
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Radner and Bill Murray played terminally nerdy high school sweethearts Lisa and Todd in the enduring “SNL” sketches dubbed “The Nerds.” Radner gave Lisa the memorable playground retort — “That’s so funny I forgot to laugh” — while Murray’s Todd couldn’t wait to rub his knuckles on the top of her head and shout, “Noogie Patrol!” Jane Curtin, right, played Lisa’s scoldy mother, Mrs. Loopner. Courtesy of NBCU Photo Bank
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“Saturday Night Live” spoofs quickly became touchstones for popular culture that enhanced the celebrity status of those who were targeted. Gilda set the “SNL” standard for celebrity impersonations with her no-holds-barred take on ABC News star anchor Barbara Walters as “Baba Wawa,” inspired by Walters’ soft pronunciation of “l” and “r” sounds. In this 1976 “SNL” episode, Radner’s Baba Wawa interviews John Belushi as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Courtesy of NBCU Photo Bank
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An early promotional shot for “SNL” demonstrates the Murderer’s Row of comedy talent that producer Lorne Michaels assembled for the show that has become a TV institution. “We were television underdogs, nobodies, bad kids, but we made history,” Radner wrote in her memoir. “Our names became household words. Lorne used to say we were the Beatles of comedy.” Top from left: Chevy Chase, John Belushi, Michael O’Donoghue; middle: Radner, Jane Curtin, Laraine Newman; front: Garrett Morris NBC/NBCU Photo Bank