Decades after her death, memories of Gilda Radner stir warmth and humor

By Mike Hughes

At first, this was
just some research into the noisy little life of Gilda Radner.

“I was sort of my
hobby project,” Lisa D'Apolito said.

And after
four-and-a-half years, it became much more. “Love, Gilda” drew
praise at film festivals and in movie theaters; now it has its cable
debut is New Year's Day on CNN.

The difference,
years into the project, came when D'Apolito went back to Detroit to
talk to Michael Radner, Gilda's brother. “I asked if there was
anything else he might have that would be helpful.”

There was. After
Radner's death (in 1989, of cancer at 42), her widower (Gene Wilder)
had sent boxes of Gilda's things, including endless journals. “She
was an amazing writer,” D'Apolito said.

And far more
complicated than people realized. Her food problems – which were
“only a couple paragraphs” in her memoir, D'Apolito said – were
a key subject. “I'm exhausted and confused,” Radner wrote in her
journal. “I weigh 104 pounds and I think I'm fat.”

She was fat for a
while, during a privileged childhood. A belated daughter for a dad in
his 50s, she felt constantly loved. But her mom couldn't stand
Michigan winters; for four months each year, the family lived in
Florida. “I couldn't get attached anywhere,” Radner said. “I
overate constantly.”

At 10, she was
taking diet pills. At 12, she saw her buoyant father rapidly fade
with a brain tumor; he died two years later. “It was too great a
loss of a person I adored,” she said.

But her fallback was
humor. “Even when she was in a dark place, Gilda was funny,”
D'Apolito said.

She had savored
going to shows in Detroit with her dad; she loved doing them at an
all-girl school in Detroit and then at the University of Michigan ...
which definitely wasn't all-girl.

“She was very
boy-crazy,” D'Apolito said. “She had tons of boyfriends” at

Her journals are
full of guys she dated. Radner once said she didn't enjoy seeing
“Ghostbusters” because, except for Rick Moranis, she had dated
every guy in the movie.

That's how she
happened to move to Toronto, because her boyfriend (a sculptor) was
moving there. She tried to stop performing ... then discovered the
city's vibrant comedy scene. “She would walk into the room and all
the energy would go to her,” Martin Short, another ex-boyfriend,
says in the film. Radner was the first person hired for what became
“Saturday Night Live.”

For D'Apolito, that
meant binge-watching five “SNL” seasons. “It was a kind of a
mish-mash at first of Muppets and music” and films and odd
sketches, she said. But the audience loved Radner.

Like other “SNL”
originals, Radner left after five years and had mixed success with
movies. She also did a Broadway show (“Gilda Radner – Live From
New York”) that became a movie. She married G.E. Smith (the
guitarist on the Broadway show and, later, on “SNL”) and then

Then came the
illness. During remission, D'Apolito said, Radner talked to former
“SNL” writer Alan Zweibel. “She said, 'Can you help me make
cancer funny?'”

He wrote a Garry
Shandling episode for her. She wrote her memoir, charmed friends,
then relapsed. “She said, 'For a little while there, I thought I
was going to get away with this,” D'Apolito said.

The book (“It's
Always Something”) came out shortly after her death and was a
best-seller. Six years later, the first of 17 Gilda's Clubs opened,
helping cancer patients and their families.

“I just fell in
love with the Gilda's Club in New York,” D'Apolito said. “The
people there had such a deep connection with Gilda's life.”

D'Apolito, who is in
advertising, began doing films for the club, then began that
four-year “hobby.” The big change, she said, came with the idea
of having current stars – Amy Poehler, Cecily Strong, Bill Hader,
Maya Rudolph – read the journals in the film.

That brought fresh
interest. “Love, Gilda” opened this year's Tribeca Film Festival
and won the audience prize at the Cinetopia Film Festival. Almost 30
years after her death, people still love Gilda.

-- “Love, Gilda,
CNN; debuts New Year's Day (Wednesday), repeats Saturday (Jan. 5)

-- Each is 8 p.m.
and 11 p.m. ET (5 and 8 p.m. PT), barring breaking news