Gilda Susan Radner (June 28, 1946 – May 20, 1989) was an American comedienne and actress, best known as one of the original cast members of the NBC sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live, for which she won an Emmy Award in 1978.
Radner battled bulimia during her time on the show. She once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center. She had a relationship with SNL castmate Bill Murray, with whom she had also worked at the National Lampoon, that ended badly. Few details of their relationship or its end were made public at the time. When Radner wrote It’s Always Something, this is the only reference she made to Murray in the entire book: “All the guys [in the National Lampoon group of writers and performers] liked to have me around because I would laugh at them till I peed in my pants and tears rolled out of my eyes. We worked together for a couple of years creating The National Lampoon Show, writing The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and even working on stuff for the magazine. Bill Murray joined the show and Richard Belzer …”
In 1979, incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she ultimately turned down. That year, she was one of the hosts of the Music for UNICEF Concert at the United Nations General Assembly.
Alan Zweibel, who co-created the Roseanne Roseannadanna character and co-wrote all of Roseanne’s dialogue, recalled that Radner, one of three original SNL cast members who stayed away from cocaine, chastised him for using it.
Radner had mixed emotions about the fans and strangers who recognized her in public. She sometimes became “angry when she was approached, but upset when she wasn’t.”
In the fall of 1988, after biopsies and a saline wash of her abdomen showed no signs of cancer, Radner was put on a maintenance chemotherapy treatment to prolong her remission, but later that same year, she learned that her cancer had returned after a routine blood test showed her levels of the tumor marker CA-125 had increased. She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 17, 1989 for a CAT scan. Despite being fearful that she would never wake up, she was given a sedative but passed into a coma during the scan. She did not regain consciousness and died three days later from ovarian cancer at 6:20 am on May 20, 1989; Wilder was at her side.
Gene Wilder had this to say about her death:
She went in for the scan – but the people there could not keep her on the gurney. She was raving like a crazed woman – she knew they would give her morphine and was afraid she’d never regain consciousness. She kept getting off the cart as they were wheeling her out. Finally three people were holding her gently and saying, “Come on Gilda. We’re just going to go down and come back up.” She kept saying, “Get me out, get me out!” She’d look at me and beg me, “Help me out of here. I’ve got to get out of here.” And I’d tell her, “You’re okay honey. I know. I know.” They sedated her, and when she came back, she remained unconscious for three days. I stayed at her side late into the night, sometimes sleeping over. Finally a doctor told me to go home and get some sleep. At 4 am on Saturday, I heard a pounding on my door. It was an old friend, a surgeon, who told me, “Come on. It’s time to go.” When I got there, a night nurse, whom I still want to thank, had washed Gilda and taken out all the tubes. She put a pretty yellow barrette in her hair. She looked like an angel. So peaceful. She was still alive, and as she lay there, I kissed her. But then her breathing became irregular, and there were long gasps and little gasps. Two hours after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.
Her funeral was held in Connecticut on May 24, 1989. In lieu of flowers, her family requested that donations be sent to The Wellness Community. Her gravestone reads: “Gilda Radner Wilder – Comedienne – Ballerina 1946-1989″. She was interred at Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Stamford, Connecticut.
By coincidence, the news of her death broke on early Saturday afternoon (Eastern Daylight Time), while Steve Martin was rehearsing as the guest host for that night’s season finale of Saturday Night Live. Saturday Night Live personnel—including Lorne Michaels, Phil Hartman, and Mike Myers (who had, in his own words, “fallen in love” with Radner after playing her son in a BC Hydro commercial on Canadian television and considered her the reason he wanted to be on SNL)—had not known she was so close to death. They scrapped Martin’s planned opening monologue and instead, Martin, in tears, introduced a video clip of a 1978 sketch in which he and Radner parodied Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in a well-known dance routine from The Band Wagon.