She was born in Detroit in 1946, and became one of the most recognizable faces on American TV. But certainly not as a fashion model. "I base most of my fashion taste on what doesn't itch," she said about her clothing style.
She recalled that as a child she coped with stress by developing an eating disorder. She overate constantly, then dieted obsessively, When she was ten years old her mother took her to a doctor who put her on Dexedrine. She later recalled that as a child she weighed as much as 160 pounds, and as little as 93.
Her father was the one who introduced her to the world of entertainment. He operated the Seville Hotel in Detroit, where actors and nightclub performers stayed when they came to town. Her dad also took her to the theater to see Broadway shows.
She went to the University of Michigan where she studied drama and found a spot as the college radio station weather girl. She dropped out her senior year to follow her boyfriend to Toronto. In 1972 she made her professional acting debut in a production of Godspell, with fellow actors Martin Short and Eugene Levy. Soon after, when she joined Toronto's Second City comedy troupe, the die was cast.
She then landed a job with a syndicated radio show, a comedy based on the humor magazine National Lampoon. She told jokes and did skits with comedians such as John Belushi, Chevy Chase and Bill Murray.
In 1975, when NBC was putting together the groundbreaking Saturday Night Live, creator Lorne Michaels picked her as a featured actor in the original cast, along with Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Garrett Morris -- and two other women. "I'd much rather be a woman than a man," she quipped. "Women can cry, they can wear cute clothes, and they are the first to be rescued off of sinking ships."
She stayed on the show for five years, creating several memorable characters. In 1980 she married G. E. Smith, who played lead guitar for the rock band Hall & Oates and also became musical director for Saturday Night Live.
She left TV in 1980 and went on to star in several movies and Broadway shows. During the filming of Hanky Panky she met Gene Wilder and, as she admitted, "fell in love at first sight." She and Smith were divorced in 1982. She married Wilder in 1984 during a trip to the south of France. The couple made two more movies together, but had no children.
While filming the movie Haunted Honeymoon in 1985, she experienced recurring pains in her legs. She went to the doctor, and after a long series of tests was eventually diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She underwent a painful series of chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, and was pronounced in remission.
During this time she wrote her autobiography, called It's Always Something, a catchphrase from her Saturday Night Live character Rosanne Roseannadanna. "I wanted a perfect ending," she wrote of her life. "Now I've learned, the hard way, that some poems don't rhyme, and some stories don't have a clear beginning, middle and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what's going to happen next."
She was (as you certainly know by now) Gilda Radner. Unfortunately, in 1988 she learned that her cancer had returned. She was scheduled for a CAT scan on May 19, 1989. She was nervous, with premonitions that she would somehow not survive the test. The doctors prescribed a sedative. During the procedure she passed into a coma, and never woke up. She died three days later, with husband Gene Wilder at her side.
Gilda Radner's death helped raise awareness of ovarian cancer and the importance of early detection. In 1991, Wilder co-founded Gilda's Club, a network of groups where people with cancer, along with their families, can meet to build emotional and medical support. The center was named after a Radner quote: "Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I'd rather not belong to."
P.S. The two other women in the original cast of SNL were Jane Curtin and Laraine Newman. Meanwhile, I am walking in the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life tonight. Wish me luck!