You can take the little girl out of Detroit, and you can even take Detroit out of the little girl. There is, however, about Gilda Radner this basic, sweet, naive, little-girl-from-Detroit streak that could very well keep her from becoming a nut, a mess or a human Sterno can -- the kind of monster other adored performers have been turning into since Day one.
Gilda was doing her one-woman Broadway show last year when a little boy ran down the aisle and stood near the stage staring up at her. "And I could see in his eyes that I could never be what he saw," Gilda says. "I would just disappoint him, you know, 'cause I couldn't be that heightened vision that he had in his eyes.
"It's the same thing I felt from that audience. That show made me realize, you better get your life together because, to be a sucker for this would only be -- well, it's only there for that minute, you know? You can't take it home with you."
And so Gilda learned to be a little bit afraid of her fans and a little bit afraid of success, of which, in the past five years, she's had plenty, mainly thanks to her glowing, droll, knockabout, irrepressible performances on NBC's "Saturday Night Live." Radner proved the most versatile, perhaps most durable performer in a group of standouts with a collection of original characters who are now part of the folklore that children of all ages pass on to one another.
There was Emily Litella, the high-dudgeon fussbudget ("Never mind"). Baba Wawa, a famous newscaster ("The Pwesident is weely weely large"). Lisa Loopner, adenoidal idolator of Marvin Hamm-uh-lisch ("That was so funny I forgot to laugh"). And Roseanne Roseannadanna, this very urban, very hip lady with the scraggly hair and a penchant for such lowminded details as the sweatball hanging from Dr. Joyce Brothers' nose in the stream room at the health spa.
Of such items as the sweatball Roseanne would say, "You don't know what it is" and she also contributed to the lexicography of every man I thought I was gonna DIE" and the immortal philosophy, "It's always somethin'."
And then there is Gilda Radner, former fat girl, one-time wallflower, reluctantly by unquestionably cute 34-year-old actress whose childlike sensibilities still pop up in words and phrases like "Okay, so anyway," "cuz" and "ookie" and who said to herself when she read the new play "Lunch Hour" by Jean Kerr, "This is too grown-up for me." But director Mike Nichols insisted she was perfect for the lead role, "Saturday Night Live" was now dead, Gilda had begun a new life married to rock guitarist G. E. Smith, and so she consented.
Radner and Sam Waterston and the great Max Wright opened in the play at the Kennedy Center last night.
"My nightmare," says Gilda, during a break from rehearsals in a New York sutdio, "is that someone in the audience will yell, 'Do Roseanne Roseannadanna!' "What she realized when SRO crowds went wild for her during the repeatedly extended engagement of "Hilda, Live From New York" last year was that "I didn't want to be what you can become, a backdrop or a set for a whole lot of other people.
"You become just your name and what you do that gets to people. And then a whole lot of other people work for you and then you don't have anything left, you're just the set. They carry you from place to place -- pick you up, set you up, putting pokers so you don't fall down and, 'You wait in your room cuz we're going out for drinks and everything and you stay in your room cuz you need your rest.' And you hear people like in hallways of hotels having a great time and you're the object and so -- I don't want to be that."
Gilda may feel she has spent enough time waiting in her room. She has spoken of growing up in Detroit and, later, Toronto with less than loving memory. For a time she was a fat girl of 150 pounds, and today has a picture in her purse to prove it. "Find me," she says, holding out a snapshot of a wedding party. She's the chubette in the pink taffeta dress.
No one danced harder or longer at the closing night party of "Saturday Night Live" (guests: Mick Jagger, Jack Nicholson, etc.) than Gilda. She danced with everything but the potted plants. In a sense, this was graduation day.Now she had to go out and face the world. And get a job.
"'Saturday Night' was always run like school," she says, ignoring a salad placed on a stool before her. "You'd go from the fall to the summer and have the summer off, but suddenly it was like graduating from high school or college.
"The thing that I'll miss is that there was this place which was the offices of 'Saturday Night' (on the 17th floor of the RCA Building in Rockefeller Center) that you could always go, and there was always somebody there that you could tell what happened to, and make it funny or cry and make it sad or whatever, and there was this flowing of energy or ideas like a think tank and all you had to do was go from wherever you were to there and something was happening. It was the center, and you could go there, and I miss that."
But as many people observed, when the five-year contracts ran out and the old gang, already battered by defections to Tinsel Town, broke up, it may not have been a moment too soon.
"I'm relieved a bit," says Gilda, "because towards the end of 'Saturday Night Live' I was thinking, this is becoming very difficult for all of us. We were getting established in our lives and in the public eye and I suddenly was able to stand outside myself and feel like I was a viable parody. sDo you know what I mean? Maybe I've got the wrong word. I was -- um, is viable right? I myself was something one could parody, I was established enough -- understand? -- and there was no way to go back and get innocence again.
"'Saturday Night' made all of us famous, and there was no way to retrieve the underdog image that we once had. As we all went out into the world to make movies or whatever, then suddenly the less people there are to make fun of, because suddenly they're your peers. Does this make sense? It's like, I, uh, couldn't pretend any more that I wasn't somebody, you know?"
She fidgets with her new, red, $3.98 Woolco tennis shoes.
"I wish I were making myself clear," she says.
Clearly enough, Gilda has moved into another brand of comedy with a Jean "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" Kerr play. In this show, she's a middle-class wife who discovers her husband is having an affair, goes to confront the offending homewrecker and finds the other woman's husband at home instead.
So do they fall in love, Gilda?
"Maybe they do and maybe they don't," she says as if she were standing by her locker dishing with the girls.
Gilda Radner is a Lucille Ball, a Gracie Allen, a Carole Lombard, a Katharine Hepburn and a Shirley Temple for the '70s. And the '80s.
"I know I'll run across (John) Belushi and (Dan) Aykroyd and Bill Murray and everybody from the show again because we were all in this community that came from the same style of comedy," Gilda says. She has now taken the step of putting some Vegit, "a low-sodium condiment," on the salad. "Although sometimes I get worried that they'll come in here when I'm doing this play and go, 'Okay! Let's go! Come on, get in the truck! What are you doing -- acting ?'" She laughs.
"I'm really happy about taking my first baby steps out of school, out away from 'Saturday Night.'" Of course, as she notes, should the play fail ("I know the critics can kill it, but they can't kill the weeks I've spent working on it"). Gilda has a movie coming out at Christmas, Buck Henry's political satire "First Family," in which she plays the sex-starved daughter of a U.S. president. Her dates keep being interrupted by the scandal-wary Secret Service.
Not to mention a little old one-year NBC contract (announced in June) that will pay her a princessly sum (no doubt) even if she doesn't do a lick of work for the old network. "It's like $40 million to remain exclusive for two days" she jokes as a sarcastic rejoinder to the assertion that there are "multi-millions" of dollars involved.
But even if audiences don't call out for a Roseanne imitation at "Lunch Hour," they won't be getting the Gilda Radner they're used to from television. Gilda says the play is funny, that she has great faith in director Nichols, but acknowledges it's a change. "For a long time, starting with Second City and then going on to the National Lampoon Show and then to "Saturday Night Live' I've been associated with this irreverent satirical form of comedy," she concedes. "When I was in the Lampoon Show, me, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle-Murray (Bill's writer-brother) used to run out and say to the audience, 'You're the pits.' That was our opening song. We put down the audience and I'd always be confused because when you do comedy, the natural thing inside you is 'Please, love me and laugh at me.'
"We were saying, 'Go to hell. We cant't stand you.' And I could never resolve it, although I've never been prissy about the comedy. I used to play in that show Rhoda Tyler Moore; she was a blind girl and I always used to run into the wall. The song was, 'Who's the last one in the room?' and then I'd run into the wall and throw my hat up in the air and miss it.
"And I played Jackie Kennedy and they shot a gun off to start the show, and I fell off my chair and started crawling -- that was the biggest laugh in the show. But I thought it was funny. So that's, you know, what I've been associated with.
"Aren't I a hard interview?" she suddenly and rhetorically asks. "I hardly talk. I don't shut up!"
Her hair is sticking out here and there, but not everywhere, she is wearing jeans and riotous argyle socks and Nichols comes over with his pink fish face and teases her a little, making her laugh. "I feel really lucky to have gotten this job," she says, as if she had been one step from the unemployment line. "Saturday Night Live" is always going to look good on her resume.
It was The Golden Moment.
"I think our television show was incredible," she says. "It was theater at this heightened sense, theater being immediately documented and captured. It was this amaing life that was like a dog's life, you know, cuz 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.
"So here I come to this thing where you're allowed to take time, to talk about a character -- like, people used to come on our show, to host it, and they'd say, 'Well, what's my motivation here, in this scene?' We'd all look at each other because who had time to think of motivations? You just ran around really quick and did it fast, and you prayed that something automatic inside you would give you the motivation."
There is something automatic inside Gilda Radner. It's this pilot light that makes her shine. You always know it when you see it, you don't see it very often, and anybody with an ounce of sense can see it in Gilda.
"I think 'd be a neat old woman, if I ever make it that far. I once said that to a guy I was going out with. He said, 'You already are.'
"I feel like somebody's been so generous with experiences for me. Whosever controlling it, I mean, I've had a real generosity there, so sometimes I think maybe I'm getting all this now and quickly cuz there's not gonna be a whole lot later. I mean, maybe I'm gonna die or something. So -- I know that's an awful way to think, but I have been real fortunate. Real lucky."
Then, "aw-oh," for for they're coming to get her to start rehearsals, this time for the show's little dance routine. Gilda alights. "I have to dance now," she says, standing up and grabbing her enormous purse filled with cigarettes. She returns to whisper, "There's, dancing , you know," and skips engagingly away.