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13 Facts You Didn’t Know About Jewish Comedian Gilda Radner

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Gilda Radner should be a national treasure. And yet, the beloved comedian — who is sometimes referred to as “Gene Wilder’s wife” — is under-appreciated today. But, thankfully, that may soon change: There’s a new documentary about her life called Love, Gilda, and it’s premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in April.

Radner was one of the seven original cast members on Saturday Night Live in 1975, and she won an Emmy is 1978 for her work on SNL.

Radner died far too young from ovarian cancer at the age of 42, right in the middle of her career, in 1989.

Jane Rosenthal, co-founder and CEO of the Tribeca Film Festival, said how proud the festival is to debut the doc, saying, “As a festival that has always supported women’s voices and is largely run by women, we are incredibly proud to celebrate the inimitable voice of Gilda during the opening night of our Festival.”

Despite being a fundamental voice in modern U.S. comedy, there’s still a lot about Radner that most people don’t know. Read on for details:

1. Radner’s ovarian cancer was misdiagnosed — which may have lead to her death. 

When Radner first went to a doctor to figure out why she began feeling severe fatigue, she was diagnosed with Epstein-Barr virus. The doctor told her, “Go home, relax, don’t worry about it.” She heard this from several doctors, who gave her a variety of diagnoses, from pregnancy to depression.

It was 10 months before doctors realized she had ovarian cancer, according to Wilder. In a piece for People in 1991, he wrote about how he held onto hope, until the very end:

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 gaps and little gasps. Two hours after I arrived, Gilda was gone. While she was conscious, I never said goodbye.

2. Radner starred in three films with Wilder — and she was known as being hilarious on and off set. Of her sense of humor, Wilder wrote:

I think one of the things that would make Gilda happiest is if Sparkle, her Yorkshire terrier, pee-peed right on top of her grave. One for Mama. She’d laugh.

3. Before Wilder, Radner was married to SNL musical director George Edward Smith.

Radner was married to Smith from 1980 until 1982 — the two paired up when he worked as the guitarist for Radner’s 1979 Broadway show, Gilda Live. Before becoming the leader of the Saturday Night Live Band, he was the lead guitarist for Hall and Oates(!).

4. Bill Murray was inspired by Radner.

Bill Murray told Jimmy Kimmel that he modeled his auditions after Radner. She had “incredible confidence,” he said, as she seemed not to care about whether or not she got the part, because she didn’t need the money.

5. Radner actually met Wilder on the set of their film Hanky Panky (oh, the irony!). In her memoir she wrote that he was “funny and athletic and handsome, and he smelled good.”

6. Radner struggled with her weight since childhood and had “every possible eating disorder from time [she] was nine years old.” Even as an adult, she suffered from bulimia.

7. Cancer ran in her family — and was something she was afraid of. When she was 12, her father was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. He became unable to speak or move and died within two years.

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8. Radner wanted to have children, but couldn’t. She was told she was infertile, and often wondered if an illegal abortion she had when she was 19 caused her infertility. She and Wilder agreed to do IVF, and Radner completed an entire cycle, but sadly, it didn’t work — and they didn’t try IVF again.

9. Because of her dream to become pregnant, she and her doctors confused her early ovarian cancer symptoms as pregnancy and later, a miscarriage. While on set of Haunted Honeymoon, a film she and Wilder were both working on, she often chalked her fatigue up to pregnancy. Later, when she bled heavily on set, she assumed it was a miscarriage.

10. When her cancer was finally diagnosed, Wilder says Radner’s first reaction was relief at being believed, saying: “Gilda cried, but then she turned to me and said, ‘Thank God, finally someone believes me!’’’

11. Radner was the first cast member Lorne Michaels hired. Badass.

12. In 1989, just before her death, Radner completed an autobiography titled It’s Always SomethingIn the book, she largely discusses her early childhood, eating disorder, marriage to Wilder, and desire for children.

13. Radner dropped out of the University of Michigan her senior year. The Detroit native — who gave the weather forecast on the college radio station — left school to follow her then boyfriend to Toronto. There, she started in production of “Godspell” with other future notables like Eugene Levy and Martin Short. The rest, as they say, is history.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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