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

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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