In a surreal scene in the ABC biopic "Gilda Radner: It's Always Something," Jami Gertz plays both Radner and her "Saturday Night Live" character, Baba Wawa.
In the sequence, cancer-stricken Radner is lying in the hospital after her hysterectomy, bald from chemotherapy, dreaming she's being interviewed by the wig-coifed Wawa. "So Gilda, what have you been doing since 'Saturday Night Live,'" Gertz-as-Baba purrs in an imitation so dead-on it's eerie.
"Dying," replies Gertz-as-Gilda in a tormented whisper.
It's a moment that illustrates why ABC chose the raven-haired actress -- best known for films such as "Twister" and "Less Than Zero" -- to play the comedienne who died of ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989. "She nailed both the real comedic bits in the script and the dramatic part," ABC Executive Vice President Susan Lyne told The Hollywood Reporter.
Unlike the late comic actress, Gertz, 36, never suffered from bulimia or dysfunctional relationships -- though she did identify in one important way with Radner. "Gilda was a nice Jewish girl from Detroit, and I'm a nice Jewish girl from Chicago," she says. The two women even attended the same predominantly Jewish summer camp in Michigan.
While Radner grew up in a culturally Jewish home, Gertz attended weekly Conservative services and United Synagogue Youth. She received her big break playing the bubbly Jewish preppie Muffy Tepperman on CBS's "Square Pegs" in 1982. "My character even had a bat mitzvah," notes Gertz, who landed the role after winning a nationwide talent search at age 16.
To star in the sitcom, she had to move into a Los Angeles rental apartment with her mother, leaving her father and brothers behind in Chicago. "I remember going down to the pool and seeing a guy with nipple rings," she says of her subsequent culture shock. Gertz studiously avoided the Hollywood dating scene as she went on to star in hit teen flicks such as "The Lost Boys." "I dabbled with a few actors," she admits. "But I never felt really comfortable."
Instead, she married Jewish financier Tony Ressler in 1987 and cut back her acting career to raise their three sons. Gertz says she declined a "Friends" role to have her second child; she auditioned for "Gilda" in between car pools to karate and Wilshire Boulevard Temple's religious school.
Not long after she landed the Radner biopic, the actress' elation gave way to fear. "People started telling me how much they loved Gilda, and I was scared I wasn't going to do her justice," she says.
During hours of research, Gertz studied SNL tapes to perfect Radner characters, such as nerdy Lisa Loopner and vulgar Roseanne Roseannadanna. "Roseanne was the toughest, because of the accent, the gum-chewing and the thumb-pointing," she says. Donning Radner's frizzy wig and original costume helped, though the outfit had to be let out because the bulimic comic was so thin.
Even more helpful was interviewing Radner's widower, Gene Wilder, who starred with her in films such as "The Woman in Red." "He told me the most amazing stories," recalls Gertz, who received an Emmy nomination for her guest spots on "Ally McBeal."
"Like, when journalists asked why he didn't marry the pretty girl from 'The Woman in Red' [actress Kelly LeBrock], he'd say, 'I did marry the pretty girl.' He also told me that Gilda knew she was going to die while she was recording her autobiography, which made those scenes very difficult for me. When I asked, 'Will you visit the set?' he just kind of paused and said, 'No.' I think it would have been too painful for him."
Playing the dying Radner was also painful for Gertz, who often felt dizzy during the shoot. "I'd go back to my room at night and I really could not sleep," she says. "What was profoundly sad to me was how desperately Gilda wanted a baby, because I have three children of my own. I was very aware that I am living the happy ending she would have wanted."
"It's Always Something" airs April 29 at 9 p.m. on ABC.