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Cancer Isn’t Funny: SNL Stars Gilda Radner, Danitra Vance, and Jan Hooks

by Legacy Staff

The short roster of deceased “Saturday Night Live” 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, Danitra Vance, who lost her battle with breast cancer, and more recently Jan Hooks, who died of throat cancer in 2014. We’re taking a look back at the lives and work of these very funny women of “Saturday Night Live.”

Danitra Vance (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives / NBC)
Danitra Vance

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… a distinction that 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.

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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.

After “SNL,” Vance worked on a movie career but never hit it big. Still, she appeared in the well-known movies “The War of the Roses” and “Little Man Tate” before landing a starring role in what would be her final film, 1992’s “Jumpin’ at the Boneyard.” She was honored with an NAACP Image Award in 1986.

In 1990 Vance was diagnosed with breast cancer 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 40.

Gilda Radner (Everett Collection)
Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner is celebrated as one of the brightest lights of the early days of “SNL.” Radner was part of the first broadcast back on Oct. 11, 1975 — in fact, she was the very 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.

Jan Hooks
Jan Hooks (Everett Collection)

Jan Hooks kept us laughing throughout the late ’80s as an “SNL” cast member and even into the ’90s with several cameo appearances. She began her comedy career with well known groups The Wits End in Atlanta and The Groundlings in Los Angeles. Initially passed over for a gig on “SNL,” Hooks joined the cast in 1986 and entertained with over-the-top characters like Candy Sweeney of The Sweeney Sisters as well as her impressions of notable women from Bette Davis and Nancy Reagan to Hillary Clinton and Tammy Faye Bakker

Hooks left “SNL” in 1991 to join the cast of sitcom “Designing Women.” She continued to act in television and the occasional film throughout the ’90s. Acting roles waned in the 2000s. Her last was in 2013 on “The Cleveland Show” before her death Oct. 9, 2014, of throat cancer. She was 57.


October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Here are a few facts about the cancers that took the lives of Radner and Vance:

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.


Originally published October 2010

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