Gilda Radner thought she wasn't beautiful. She was wrong about that.
A TV picture is made of light, and Gilda Radner supplemented that light with a quirky glow of her own. She did it just being herself, but also by playing a gallery of endearing eccentrics on "Saturday Night Live" - the half-deaf fussbudget Emily Litella ("What's all this about Russian jewelry?"), the blabbily oblivious Baba Wawa, the post-nasal Lisa Loopner, and Roseanne Roseannadanna, a whacked-out frizzoid whose recollections of excruciating gross-outs would always include the interjection, "I thought I was gonna die."Early Saturday, in Los Angeles, Gilda Radner did. She was 42. That night, hosting the last program of "Saturday Night Live's" 14th season, comedian Steve Martin introduced a brief tape that showed Gilda at her impish best, romping with Martin through an affectionate spoof of romantic movie musical numbers to the strains of "Dancing in the Dark."
As a preface to the clip, Martin, choking back tears, said, "You know, I've been coming here to do `Saturday Night Live' since 1976, and the thing that brings you back to the show is the people you get to work with. And I'd like to show you something we recorded on this stage in 1978."
In the number, Gilda and Steve, both dressed in white, chase each other around the studio, two strangers having a daft chance encounter, all swoons and swoops and pirouettes. Beneath all the wonderful characters Gilda played there was, in fact, a wonderful Gilda.
Gilda Radner was an honor student in the show's first graduating class, one of its original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" when it premiered on NBC in 1975. Gilda was the cutest, the sweetest, the most adorable. She also appeared, as years went by, to be the one least adversely affected by instant fame and its hazards. She always seemed to have her feet on the ground and to keep a jaundiced, self-mocking attitude.
That attitude probably served her well when she developed ovarian cancer and underwent 17 months of treatment, including chemotherapy. Returning to the public eye in 1988 after a two-year absence, she bounced through an antic edition of "It's Garry Shandling's Show" on cable TV.
"I haven't been on television for a while," Gilda says on her first appearance. "Oh that - yeah, what was wrong?" Shandling asks her. "Oh, I had cancer," Gilda says matter-of-factly, adding, "What did you have?"
At about the time she taped the program, she began work on a book about her experience with cancer: "It's Always Something," another of the catch-phrases favored by the redoutable Ms. Roseannadanna. Gilda became a familiar, cheering figure at a "wellness" clinic in Santa Monica, where she offered counsel and support to others with life-threatening diseases.
"We all would like somebody to say, `Everything for sure is okay,"' she said of her remission. "That's like saying that for sure if I go back on TV, it's going to be a success. You can't. You just go on with your life. There's an unknown, yeah, but there's an unknown in everybody's life. Cancer is just more upfront. You forge ahead."
She'd left "Saturday Night Live" with some regrets, but the timing felt right.
"I think our television show was incredible. It was theater at this heightened sense, theater being immediately documented and captured. It was this amazing life that was like a dog's life, 'cause there were seven years in every one year. Really! Truly! It got hard for the rest of life to compare with that kind of energy and that feeling of celebration once you got through it."
Some people expected that Gilda would remain in television, becoming a Lucille Ball for the '80s. But instead of staying in TV, Gilda took her act to other stages, among them the Winter Garden Theater in New York, where her delightful one-woman revue kept having its run extended. Eventually Mike Nichols filmed it as "Gilda Live."
Through all her appearances, she remained to some recognizable degree the little girl from Detroit who realized at the age of 10 that her wits and not her looks would be her greatest resource.
In 1980, preparing for "Lunch Hour," Gilda was full of life and full of possibilities. Cancer had not been diagnosed. "I feel like somebody's been so generous with experiences for me," she said then. "Whosever controlling it, I mean. I've had a real generosity there, so sometimes I think maybe I'm getting this all now, and quickly, 'cause there's not going to be a whole lot later.
"I mean, maybe I'm gonna die or something. I know that's an awful way to think, but I have been real fortunate. Real lucky." She jumped up and grabbed her lumpy purse and danced to the center of the rehearsal hall. Literally danced-skipping, prancing, larking. Sunlight streamed through the windows, but it didn't hold a candle to her.