November 18, 2018

Gilda Radner’s Life Story in Her Own Words

Gilda Radner

In 1975, a petite Jewish comedian from suburban Detroit named Gilda Radner became famous overnight with the debut of “Saturday Night Live.” As one of the original “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” on “SNL,” Radner created iconic characters like Emily Litella, Roseanne Roseannadanna, and Baba Wawa, and won an Emmy during her five-year run on the show. But hidden behind the laughter was the Gilda the public never knew: a woman who struggled with the pressures of fame, an eating disorder, and later, ovarian cancer, which ultimately claimed her life in 1989 when she was 42.

The documentary “Love, Gilda” explores both the public persona and the personal side of the beloved performer, telling her story through video clips, audio recordings, home movies, interviews with friends and colleagues, and writings from her journals, read by more recent “SNL” cast members including Maya Rudolph, Amy Poehler and Bill Hader.

First-time feature director Lisa D’Apolito, who spent 4 1/2 years making the film, told the Journal, “It was a passion project.”  She wasn’t a big Radner fan while growing up, “but I am now,” D’Apolito said. “Her legacy was so unique and important.”

While D’Apolito was working in production at an advertising agency about eight years ago, a request came in to make some videos for Gilda’s Club, the cancer support organization that Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder, founded in 1995. “But about halfway through the process, Gilda’s brother gave me access to her personal materials that had been in storage since she passed away, including audiotapes that she recorded for her book, ‘It’s Always Something.’ Once I heard them, I wanted to incorporate as much as I could, and tell the story from her point of view,” she said.

Unfortunately, some of the audiotapes were damaged, so D’Apolito had others rerecord Radner’s words. She had about a dozen journals and other writings to work with, and excerpts appear on screen in Radner’s handwriting. “It was important to me to use the journals exactly how they were written,” she said. “But we had to retouch and clean up a lot of them.”

One journal, from the summer of 1978, was particularly revelatory. “Gilda had checked herself into a hospital for an eating disorder,” D’Apolito said. “Only two friends knew. It was surprising to me that at the height of her fame, she was going through so much. She was struggling inside and not telling anybody what was going on.”

As noted in the film, Radner’s issues with food go back to her childhood, when she was given diet pills as an overweight 10-year-old. She grew up in an affluent Jewish community, attending a private school and spending winters in Miami Beach with her family, which was her first comedic inspiration.

“Her father, brother and cousins were funny. There’s a real respect for humor in the way she grew up,” D’Apolitio said. “She wasn’t raised religious in any way, but she called herself a Jew from Detroit. She was very proud of her background.”

It was important to D’Apolito to convey what it was like for a woman in comedy in the 1970s and specifically on “SNL,” where there were no female writers at the time. “But Gilda never felt suppressed, and she never doubted herself as a performer,” she said. “She felt equal to [the men].”

Although Radner had tragedy in her life, including her father’s death from a brain tumor when she was 14, plus a miscarriage and her battle with ovarian cancer, “she could always find the humor,” D’Apolito said. “No matter what was going on, she never hit rock bottom, never let anything get her down.”

D’Apolito believes it was Radner’s perky personality that endeared the performer to the public. “She loved an audience. She loved people. She was very accessible and approachable. She exuded some sort of joy, something that made you connect to her.”

In April, comedian Tina Fey introduced the film at its premiere on opening night of the Tribeca Film Festival, with many other “SNL” alumni and comic luminaries in attendance. “Audiences are happy to have Gilda back,” D’Apolito said, based on her observations at Tribeca and other screenings. “They’re remembering her and how much they loved her.”

D’APolito added, “I’m hoping that a younger generation can discover Gilda. She had a really important role in comedy, and I hope the film brings that to light for people who didn’t know her and her work.”

Asked how Radner might react to the film, D’Apolito wasn’t sure. “But her friends and family love it,” she said. “I hear Gilda’s voice in my head [saying], ‘Why did you use that bad picture of me?’ But I think [the film] has a good balance. I think she’d want an open, honest picture of her life and I think that’s what I have. I hope that she would like it.”

New York-based D’Apolito, who was an actress before she got into production and directing commercials and short films, may not be finished with Radner just yet. “Gilda left behind a lot of material, some short stories and a really good screenplay — a comedy about a woman looking for love who’s torn between two men,” she said. “I don’t want her stuff to go back into storage. I’m talking to people to figure out what we can possibly do.”


“Love, Gilda” opens in theaters on Sept. 21.

Basking in the ‘GLOW’ of wrestling series and playing Gilda Radner

Photo by Koury Angelo

NAME: Jackie Tohn

AGE: 36

BEST KNOWN FOR: Making the top 36 in Season Eight of
“American Idol” (2009).

LITTLE-KNOWN FACT: “At 18, I came out to L.A. with my agent
and my mom and met Jessica Biel at the TV Guide Awards.
We became fast friends and I moved in with her and her family
in Calabasas almost immediately.”


Jackie Tohn is an actress, stand-up comic, musical comedian and singer-songwriter.

Recently, two Netflix projects have kept her busy: She plays wrestler Melanie in “GLOW,” a Jenji Kohan-produced series based on the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and comedic icon Gilda Radner in the David Wain-directed “A Futile & Stupid Gesture,” to be released later this year. The Oceanside, N.Y., native is high-energy and independent, qualities that she brought to these and other characters in her filmography — as well as to her Jewish Journal interview at a Silver Lake coffee shop on June 23.

Jewish Journal: How would you characterize your comedy style?

Jackie Tohn: Who I am is Borscht Belty. I’m a Catskills person. I look back at that time and I relate to it: Joan Rivers, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks, Henny Youngman. I aspire to be a showman. For a long time, that wasn’t cool — it was, the more apathetic you are, that was the sign of a star. I have no aspirations to stand up there and be apathetic and not try. I like the idea that you make an act, you practice your act and now you’re performing for people. That’s why I like a Sarah Silverman: I respond more to people who want to put on a show. The apathy angle doesn’t really work for me. I’m way too excited for that [stuff]. I thought I was too big for myself, for the space, just too much. I was “Jackie Tohn: Not for Everyone.”

JJ: How would you describe your connection to Judaism?

JT: It’s a kishkas connection: It’s in my guts and who I am. I look at Mel Brooks and Gilda and Joan Rivers and even [Jerry] Seinfeld and Larry David — there’s something intangible but something you feel when there’s a Jewish vibe. I look at those people and say, hey, I relate to them. Especially the Jewish culture in comedy — they’re kindred; they could all be members of my family. Culturally, I just feel Jewish. As Jews, we’ve overcome so much and we’ve always been joking. Yiddish is the funniest language: “I can’t make it” becomes “With one tuchis you can’t dance at two weddings.”

JJ: What lessons have you learned from comedy?

JT: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is the value of support. It’s really easy to cross your arms and say, “That’s not funny; make me laugh.” Those are the worst people to perform for, so I never want to be that person in an audience. I’m lucky to be in a special little part of the comedy community that’s filled with supportive, generous and loving people, and headed by comic and comedy mentor Gerry Katzman — it opened my eyes to the importance of coming from abundance and not scarcity. Just because someone else has a successful thing does not mean that there’s one less thing for me.

JJ: Why is comedy important, especially today?

JT: I was going to say comedy is more important than ever, but it was true, too, when they were making fun of [Richard] Nixon for Watergate. It’s true always, but we’re living now, so it’s always the most important and right now, because that’s all you have. We have to laugh through this. We have to believe that the future is going to be good and funny. With our current political climate and the separations and harsh feelings in the two-party system, we have to take it seriously and get things done, but we have to be laughing. Comedy is a healer.

JJ: How do you stay centered while promoting these high-profile projects?

JT: At the guarantee of sounding cliché, it’s a whirlwind. A friend who’s also an actress advised me to “be where you are.” I think of it every second of the day. “Be present,” of course, we all know that, but “be where you are” changed the verbiage: There’s 9,000 other things to do today, but this is what we’re doing right now.

JJ: What was it like to play Gilda Radner?

JT: I was hyperaware of her and “Saturday Night Live.” Gilda was the first person hired on “SNL.” I had a VHS tape of Gilda’s greatest hits, and I played it on the TV/VCR in my bedroom [growing up]. I was intimately familiar with her work, so when the audition came in, my head popped off and I put it back on. The movie takes place in ’70s, so it’s Gilda, [John] Belushi, [Dan] Aykroyd when they were in Second City. I didn’t have the pressure of having to be Gilda on “SNL.” For the audition, I went in there with costume changes and I did every Gilda character.  

JJ: What’s the most interesting thing about you that most people wouldn’t know?

JT: That I sing and play guitar, or that I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. Or that I moved out to L.A. on a break from college at U. of Delaware.

JJ: What would call your autobiography?

JT: “The Curves in Oceanside Is Buzzing.” When I was on “American Idol,” the show was at its height — even getting eliminated fairly early, I was in 30 million homes a week. And my mother said, “The Curves [women’s gym] in Oceanside was buzzing.”

Calendar January 25-31

SAT | JAN 25

MUSEUMS FREE-FOR-ALL

Sometimes there is such thing as a free lunch. SoCal Museums is bringing you its ninth annual day of free art and culture, with 20 Southern California museums banding together to get you through their doors. From the Skirball to LACMA, to the Museum of Contemporary Art, to both Gettys, to the Annenberg Space for Photography — you can bring a posse or museum hop solo. No matter what, it will be a price-less day of priceless art, and that’s better than any free lunch. Sat. Various hours. Free. Various locations. SUN | JAN 26

“KABBALAH IN ART AND ARCHITECTURE”

Architect, design critic and author Alexander Gorlin explores the spiritual side of structure. By looking at the kabbalistic relationship with creation, light, space and geometry, Gorlin seamlessly reveals how ancient Jewish mysticism is expressed in contemporary blueprints. A Rome Prize Fellow at the American Academy in Rome, Gorlin brings a worldly understanding to architectural influences. Sun. 2:30 p.m. $10 (general), $7 (seniors and students), free (members). Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 440-4500. ” target=”_blank”>lamoth.org.

LEIGH STEINBERG

He’s the guy who brought you Troy Aikman, Bruce Smith and Ben Roethlisberger. In his new book, “The Agent: My 40-Year Career Making Deals and Changing the Game,” Steinberg chronicles his early years at UC Berkeley, his time on top as an industry king and some of the high-profile struggles that eventually led to a high-profile comeback. An inspiration for “Jerry Maguire” and an innovator in sports negotiation, Steinberg’s got a fair share of stories that pack a punch. Sun. 4 p.m. Free. Book Soup, 8818 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood. (310) 659-3110. TUE | JAN 28

“THE MAGIKER”

Religion was never really a part of psychiatrist Harry Strider’s life. But when a troubled socialite seeks out Harry for counseling, the psychiatrist enters a never-before-explored world of kabbalah. Join Ed Asner, Richard Benjamin and more for a dramatic reading of Charles Dennis’ new novel. Winner of the Samuel Fuller Guerrilla Filmmaker Award, Dennis offers a funny, sharp, enlightened look at a man who is connecting for the first time. Tue. 7 p.m. $25. American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. (310) 476-9777. ” target=”_blank”>cjs.ucla.edu.


WED | JAN 29

“BUNNY BUNNY”

The Falcon Theatre presents Alan Zweibel’s theatrical love letter to Gilda Radner. Having first met at “Saturday Night Live” behind a potted tree, the writer and comedian struck up a friendship that would last 14 years. Join director Dimitri Toscas as he takes us through the sometimes-heartbreaking memories of a very funny man who misses his very funny friend. Through March 2. Wed. 8 p.m. $27-$57. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank. (818) 955-8101. FRI | JAN 31

MAYER HAWTHORNE

It’s been five years since his musical debut, and Hawthorne has an even more finely tuned sense of instrument, composition and vocal storytelling than ever before. Uniquely blending influences from soul legends Barry White and Curtis Mayfield as well as Steely Dan, Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald and the Beastie Boys, it’s unsurprising that Hawthorne has nabbed his first Grammy nomination this year. Maybe you saw him when he toured with Bruno Mars, or Erykah Badu, or Amy Winehouse; now see him for himself. Fri. 8 p.m. $40.50. Hollywood Palladium, 6215 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 962-7600.

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It’s Always Gilda

In a surreal scene in the ABC biopic "Gilda Radner: It’s Always Something," Jami Gertz plays both Radner and her "Saturday Night Live" character, Baba Wawa.

In the sequence, cancer-stricken Radner is lying in the hospital after her hysterectomy, bald from chemotherapy, dreaming she’s being interviewed by the wig-coifed Wawa. "So Gilda, what have you been doing since ‘Saturday Night Live,’" Gertz-as-Baba purrs in an imitation so dead-on it’s eerie.

"Dying," replies Gertz-as-Gilda in a tormented whisper.

It’s a moment that illustrates why ABC chose the raven-haired actress — best known for films such as "Twister" and "Less Than Zero" — to play the comedienne who died of ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989. "She nailed both the real comedic bits in the script and the dramatic part," ABC Executive Vice President Susan Lyne told The Hollywood Reporter.

Unlike the late comic actress, Gertz, 36, never suffered from bulimia or dysfunctional relationships — though she did identify in one important way with Radner. "Gilda was a nice Jewish girl from Detroit, and I’m a nice Jewish girl from Chicago," she says. The two women even attended the same predominantly Jewish summer camp in Michigan.

While Radner grew up in a culturally Jewish home, Gertz attended weekly Conservative services and United Synagogue Youth. She received her big break playing the bubbly Jewish preppie Muffy Tepperman on CBS’s "Square Pegs" in 1982. "My character even had a bat mitzvah," notes Gertz, who landed the role after winning a nationwide talent search at age 16.

To star in the sitcom, she had to move into a Los Angeles rental apartment with her mother, leaving her father and brothers behind in Chicago. "I remember going down to the pool and seeing a guy with nipple rings," she says of her subsequent culture shock. Gertz studiously avoided the Hollywood dating scene as she went on to star in hit teen flicks such as "The Lost Boys." "I dabbled with a few actors," she admits. "But I never felt really comfortable."

Instead, she married Jewish financier Tony Ressler in 1987 and cut back her acting career to raise their three sons. Gertz says she declined a "Friends" role to have her second child; she auditioned for "Gilda" in between car pools to karate and Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s religious school.

Not long after she landed the Radner biopic, the actress’ elation gave way to fear. "People started telling me how much they loved Gilda, and I was scared I wasn’t going to do her justice," she says.

During hours of research, Gertz studied SNL tapes to perfect Radner characters, such as nerdy Lisa Loopner and vulgar Roseanne Roseannadanna. "Roseanne was the toughest, because of the accent, the gum-chewing and the thumb-pointing," she says. Donning Radner’s frizzy wig and original costume helped, though the outfit had to be let out because the bulimic comic was so thin.

Even more helpful was interviewing Radner’s widower, Gene Wilder, who starred with her in films such as "The Woman in Red." "He told me the most amazing stories," recalls Gertz, who received an Emmy nomination for her guest spots on "Ally McBeal."

"Like, when journalists asked why he didn’t marry the pretty girl from ‘The Woman in Red’ [actress Kelly LeBrock], he’d say, ‘I did marry the pretty girl.’ He also told me that Gilda knew she was going to die while she was recording her autobiography, which made those scenes very difficult for me. When I asked, ‘Will you visit the set?’ he just kind of paused and said, ‘No.’ I think it would have been too painful for him."

Playing the dying Radner was also painful for Gertz, who often felt dizzy during the shoot. "I’d go back to my room at night and I really could not sleep," she says. "What was profoundly sad to me was how desperately Gilda wanted a baby, because I have three children of my own. I was very aware that I am living the happy ending she would have wanted."

"It’s Always Something" airs April 29 at 9 p.m. on ABC.

A Committed Life

For as long as she can remember, Dr. Beth Karlan has been driven to answer one elusive question: what is the difference between a normal cell and a cancerous cell? While the question is common among medical researchers, Karlan’s progress in discovering at least a partial answer has been both heartening and a continuing stimulus to continue the search.

As the director of the Gilda Radner Ovarian Cancer Program at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Karlan is heavily involved in both biological research and clinical care. The author of more than 100 research articles, abstracts, book chapters and reviews, Karlan began conducting ovarian cancer research at Cedars in 1987. By the time she was 34, in 1991, she had already been named as the director of the new Radner Program, named for comedienne Gilda Radner, who died of ovarian cancer and who was treated for the disease at Cedars. In addition, Karlan is also director of Cedars’ Division of Gynecologic Oncology and associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Ovarian cancer kills more women than all other gynecologic cancers combined, and the five-year survival rate has remained approximately 30 percent for more than 30 years — this despite major advances in surgical and chemotherapeutic techniques. Only one in four cases of ovarian cancer is diagnosed early enough to offer a good chance at being cured. Because the disease usually has no symptoms until it has metastasized throughout the abdomen, early diagnosis has been tough to achieve.

“We began the program with the hopes of finding better ways to diagnose this cancer at an earlier stage and to improve the chances for survival,” Karlan said. To that end, the program conducts laboratory research, clinical trials, educational symposia for the public and medical communities, screenings for women at increased risk due to family histories of cancer, and cutting-edge cancer care for patients. Although the program’s focus is not on the “Jewish link” to ovarian cancer, Karlan and her colleagues, including researchers at the University of Toronto, are involved in a project to try to determine just how often a particular gene — the BRCA1 gene — is abnormal in women of Ashkenazi Jewish descent who have already developed ovarian cancer. The carrier frequency of both the BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene is 10 times greater among Ashkenazi women than in the general population, Karlan said. This means that 2.5 percent of Jewish women carry a mutation of either gene, as opposed to a likelihood of only .25 percent in the general population. This does not mean that every woman who has the abnormal gene will develop ovarian cancer. “You can have the mutation but not the disease,” Karlan explained, “because the gene has what we call 91 incomplete penetrance. In other diseases, such as Tay-Sachs, the likelihood of getting the disease once the mutation is present is nearly 100 percent.”

There are, in fact, entire textbooks and medical conferences centered on the issue of “Jewish genetic diseases.” “The fact that Jews have remained a relatively confined segment of the population has allowed certain recessive genes to become expressed, such as the cancer genes,” said Karlan, who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard-Radcliffe College and earned her medical degree from Harvard Medical School. In cystic fibrosis, Karlan noted, one of the most common mutations of the gene responsible for the disease is frequently found among Ashkenazi Jews, while other mutations of the cystic fibrosis gene are found in the general population. Gaucher’s disease and APC, a form of colon cancer, also tend to strike Jews with a frequency out of proportion to their numbers. (Karlan noted that the issue of “Jewish genetic diseases” is extremely touchy to many in the Jewish community, who fear that any discussion of such a phenomenon can become fodder for anti-Semites making claims of Jewish genetic inferiority.)

Currently, Dr. Karlan is focusing her research on understanding the genetic alterations that define the pattern of growth and biology of ovarian cancer. Her laboratory has been performing pre-clinical studies on p53 gene therapy. P53 is a tumor suppresser gene, which is the most frequently altered gene involved in all human cancers. “We are actively enrolling women with refractory ovarian cancer to participate in a p53 gene therapy clinical trial at the same time that we are studying the effectiveness of this therapy in mice,” Karlan said.

Efforts to identify ways to reduce the risk of developing ovarian cancer remain at the forefront for Dr. Karlan and her colleagues. Much is already known. For example, women’s birth control and reproductive patterns clearly have an impact — but it’s less clear how. Dr. Karlan noted that studies have shown that birth control pills taken over a number of years before menopause significantly reduces the risk of developing ovarian and uterine cancers. “It’s a linear relationship,” Karlan said. “Each year a woman takes the pill, it further reduces her risk.” However, multiple pregnancies also reduce the risk of ovarian cancer, as well as bilateral tubal ligation, which reduces the ovarian cancer risk by two-thirds.

Karlan’s work at Cedars is only slightly more consuming than her commitments while not wearing a white lab coat. Married to Dr. Scott Karlan, a general surgeon at Cedars, Karlan is also a mother committed to spending time with her son, Matthew, and daughter, Jocelyn, going to little league games, rollerblading by the beach, planning her son’s bar mitzvah, and “spending time as a family.” Her day begins at 5 a.m., when she works out at home before packing lunches for her kids and signing notes for the backpacks. “It’s the only time I get a little peace to myself,” she said. “I use that time to process what needs to get done that day.”

Karlan, who was recently named “Mother of the Year” by Cedars-Sinai Medical Center’s Helping Hand of Los Angeles, also lectures at numerous professional meetings and has been a visiting professor at the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins University, the MD Anderson Cancer Institute, Stanford and UCLA. “I pack in a lot of frequent flier miles, but can use them to enjoy vacations with my family,” Karlan said. In fact, last January Karlan, who was invited to speak at an international cancer symposium in Tel Aviv, took her husband, children and mother (who had never been to Israel) along for the trip.

Karlan would love to try to expand the number of scientists focusing on ovarian cancer at Cedars, “so that we can advance the field more quickly and reach out to more people. If we had even half the amount of money for ovarian cancer as we have for breast cancer, we could make much greater forward strides,” she said. But an even bigger goal is to enjoy all aspects of her life: “I want to be there for my kids, for my husband, and still maintain the level of excellence professionally that I have come t o expect from myself.”

And, one day, perhaps, to develop a cure for ovarian cancer — a silent and deadly killer.