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Cancer Isn't Funny: SNL Stars Gilda Radner and Danitra Vance

Published: 10/11/2010

Saturday Night LiveOn Oct. 11, 2010, Saturday Night Live celebrates its 35th anniversary. Sadly, there are a few SNL alums – including two women who fought devastating cancers – who will not be able to join in the celebration.

The short roster of deceased SNL cast members is tragic. John Belushi and Chris Farley – both just 33 when they died of overdoses – left some of the most memorable and hilarious SNL sketches. Phil Hartman was known as the nicest guy on SNL before he was murdered by his wife at 49. Charles Rocket and Michael O'Donoghue may not be household names, but both made major contributions in the early days of the show and both died too young, in their mid-50s.

And then there are the women: Gilda Radner, who succumbed to ovarian cancer, and Danitra Vance, who lost her battle with breast cancer. On the anniversary of the TV show that launched their careers – and in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness this month and Ovarian Cancer Awareness last month – let's take a look at the lives and work of these SNL funnywomen.
 

Danitra Vance (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives / NBC)Danitra Vance was a Chicago native who began her career as a well-regarded stage actress, working with New York Shakespeare Festival producer George C. Wolfe. Upon joining the cast in 1985, she was the first black woman to become an SNL repertory player…which was both an achievement and an albatross. Even as she broke a show-business barrier, she found herself placed in frustratingly typecast roles: a waitress, an unwed teen mother, a maid. On one episode Vance, with guest host Oprah Winfrey, did a terrific (and terrifically funny) send-up of the stereotypical roles she was often expected to play.

She poked further fun at the phenomenon in a sketch where she sang "I Play the Maids" to the tune of Barry Manilow's "I Write the Songs," but ultimately the pigeon-holing wasn't all that funny to Vance – she chose to leave the show after just one season.

Post-SNL, Vance worked on a movie career but never hit it big. Still, she appeared in well-known movies The War of the Roses and Little Man Tate. Her final film, 1992's Jumpin' at the Boneyard, included a lead role. In 1986 she was honored with an NAACP Image Award.

Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1990 and underwent a single mastectomy. She took her experiences and turned them into a one-woman skit, "The Radical Girl's Guide to Radical Mastectomy." Unfortunately, the cancer returned. Vance died Aug. 21, 1994, at 35.

 

Gilda Radner (Everett Collection) Gilda Radner is celebrated as one of the brightest lights of SNL's early days. She was part of that first broadcast back on Oct. 11, 1975 – in fact, she was the first actor cast for the show.

The executive responsible for that decision must have patted him- or herself on the back often, because Radner's many characters became iconic and beloved to this day. Baba Wawa, her riff on Barbara Walters, was so spot-on and devastatingly funny that it first upset Walters... although she later came to terms with it and agreed it was funny (even signing "Baba Wawa" on the condolence note she sent upon Radner's death). Equally memorable were Radner's Emily Litella, a confused and complaining elderly woman; parodies of celebrities from Lucille Ball to Patti Smith; and, of course, delightfully abrasive news anchor Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Radner remained on SNL for five seasons, and starred in a successful one-woman show on Broadway, Gilda Radner – Live From New York. The Broadway show allowed her to perform some racier material, like the song "Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals," and was also where she met her first husband, G.E. Smith (who later went on to become musical director at SNL). The marriage didn't last long, beginning to deteriorate even before Radner met the man who would become her second husband, Gene Wilder.

In 1986 Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Cancer had also claimed her grandmother, aunt and cousin, and it's been suggested that if her doctors had questioned her about her family medical history, they might have caught and stopped the disease in time. Sadly, this wasn't to be. Radner died May 20, 1989, just three years after her diagnosis. She was 42.

The news of her death broke during Saturday afternoon rehearsals for SNL, and the show paid tribute to her that very night by rerunning a sketch in which she and Steve Martin parodied a romantic dance – introduced by Martin himself, who happened to be the host of that night's show. Martin cried as he introduced the sketch.

As we remember Radner and Vance, here are a few facts about the cancers that took their lives:

  • This year alone, more than 200,000 U.S. women will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 22,000 with ovarian cancer.
  • Breast cancer is the second-leading cause of cancer death in American women (after lung cancer), with nearly 40,000 dying in the U.S. each year. Globally, breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in women.
  • While far fewer women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer, the mortality rate for ovarian cancer patients is higher, and ovarian cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer death in American women.

Visit our breast cancer memorial site to learn more.

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