Gilda & Madeline
Ovarian Cancer silenced the voices of two of the funniest women the world has ever known. Gilda Radner and Madeline Kahn both succumbed to the silent killer. The pair were close friends who shared a gift for making people laugh. With their passing, the world lost two brilliant and courageous women.
Gilda Radner was the first of the pair taken away from us. In her case, the disease was not so silent. She experienced symptoms beginning approximately ten months before she finally received her diagnosis.
Gilda grew up in Detroit, Michigan with her brother, mother and beloved father. She was twelve when her father was diagnosed with a brain tumor that left him bedridden for the two years before he died. After attending the University of Michigan and working as the weather girl at the campus T.V. station, she left school to move to Toronto with her boyfriend at the time.
In Toronto she joined that city’s Second City Comedy Troupe. She appeared in the National Lampoon Radio Hour before being cast in a new television show, Saturday Night Live, in 1975. Here Gilda introduced the world to such characters as Roseanne Rosannadanna, Emily Litella, and her spoof of Barbara Walters, Barbara Wawa. She earned an Emmy for her work on Saturday Night Live in 1978. She was a performer on the show for five years.
During those years, however, Gilda struggled with bulimia and the drug use of other cast members. She was reputedly one of only three original cast members to refrain from cocaine use, according to her friend and biographer Alen Zweibel. Shortly before beginning what would be her final season on SNL, she met G.E. Smith, a musician who worked on the show. The two married in 1980.
In 1982, while filming the Sidney Poitier directed film Hanky Panky, Gilda met actor Gene Wilder. Her marriage to Smith disintegrating, it was love at true sight for both of them. After her divorce, the two were married in 1984, in the south of France.
The two wanted children, but Radner suffered through multiple miscarriages. In 1985 she began to feel pains in her upper legs and extreme fatigue. She desperately sought a diagnosis for ten months before finally receiving the news that it was Ovarian Cancer.
Gilda went through chemotherapy and radiation to fight her cancer and was in remission when she wrote her book, “It’s Always Something. The book detailed her ordeals and experiences with the disease. Radner died May 20, 1989, three days after slipping into a coma during a CAT scan. Her husband Gene Wilder was at her side.
Madeline Gail Wolfson was born in 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts. Her parents were Jewish, but non-observant. They divorced when Madeline was two years old and she lived with her mother. At age six she was placed in a progressive boarding school while her mother pursued an acting career. During this time, Madeline began acting in school productions herself.
After graduating high school in 1960 she began attending college on a dramatic scholarship, graduating with a degree in speech therapy. She taught school for a short time while auditioning for acting parts before making her stage debut in Kiss Me Kate. She began using her mother’s maiden name shortly afterward.
She continued to act on stage throughout her career. Her first film role was in a 1968 short De Duva (The Dove), and her feature debut was in What’s Up Doc?, a screwball comedy. In 1973 she earned an Academy Award Nomination for her role in Paper Moon. After creative differences with star Lucille Ball, Madeline was fired from the film production of Mame.
The loss of this job turned out well for Kahn, when she was hired for Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. The role redefined Kahn’s Hollywood persona. Previously she had been cast in roles where she was either frumpy or neurotic, however, with the role of Lily von Shtupp, she became known for more sexualized roles. Brooks also cast her in Young Frankenstein, High Anxiety, and History of the World Part I, in what are widely considered some of her best roles.
During the eighties, Kahn appeared in several films that did not receive box office success. Her experiences in television were not successful, either. Her television series, Oh Madeline, was cancelled after one season due to poor ratings and a pilot was not picked up. She successfully returned to the stage, appearing in several shows on and off Broadway.
In 1996 she was cast as the friend of Phylicia Rashad on the show, Cosby. In 1998 she was diagnosed with Ovarian Cancer. Her appearances on the show were reduced to four for that season. She went through three courses of chemotherapy, three surgeries and multiple natural treatments, but her illness continued to progress. In October 1999 she married her longtime companion John Hansbury. They were married for three months before she passed away on December 3, 1999.
Besides their impressive legacy of comedic genius, both of their deaths brought increased awareness about this terrible disease. Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder co-wrote an instructional book on Ovarian Cancer that told the story from three perspectives-Gilda’s personal story in her own words, his story, and a doctor’s perspective on the disease. He helped to found Gilda’s Club, a support center for cancer patients and the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry, which created a registry for families with two or more members diagnosed with the disease.
Each year, An Evening of Laughs is hosted at Caroline’s in New York City to honor Madeline and raise money and awareness for Ovarian Cancer. The 2011 event raised over $150,000.
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