By Kate Meyers
Updated May 24, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

She was a world-class whirling dervish of hair, legs, smile, and fairy dust. She was Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Lisa Loopner, Baba Wawa — and sometimes just Gilda Radner, a nice Jewish girl from Detroit who had the uncanny ability to make an audience laugh hysterically and want to take care of her at the same time. For five years, from 1975 to 1980, she did just that, live from New York on Saturday nights.

In 1986, when Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, she worked hard to make people laugh even about that. She wrote what she called a ”seriously funny” book about her battle, It’s Always Something (a trademark phrase of her feisty Weekend Update editorialist Litella). But after two and a half years of struggle, her body gave out. Radner died on May 20, 1989, at age 42.

”You felt like you knew her,” says Alan Zweibel, the Saturday Night Live writer who in 1994 published a memoir, Bunny Bunny, about their 14-year friendship. (A stage adaptation is slated for New York in February 1997.) ”She was accessible. She wasn’t overly pretty…. It was someone just laying themselves out there saying ‘This is me. Like me. This is me. I’m gonna make you laugh now,’ like a kid would.”

The first cast member that SNL producer Lorne Michaels had asked to be ”not ready for prime time,” Radner stood apart from such hard-driving costars as John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray. Her characters combined neurosis, nerdiness, innocence, and charm. In 1978, they won her an Emmy; in 1979, they formed the basis of her own Broadway revue, Gilda Radner Live From New York (released on video in 1980).

On the set of the 1982 romantic thriller Hanky Panky, Radner met actor Gene Wilder; he would become her second husband in 1984 (from 1980 to 1982, she was married to SNL bandleader G.E. Smith). She would later refer to the process of getting the twice-wed, semi-reluctant Wilder to marry her as ”my new career,” but once she succeeded she worked almost exclusively on movies with him (The Woman in Red, Haunted Honeymoon). Sadly, their happily ever after lasted a mere five years. Wilder (who married Karen Webb, then a speech pathologist, in 1991) and his friends dealt with their loss by creating a final legacy: Gilda’s Club, a free counseling/community center for cancer patients that opened in New York City in 1995. There are now seven Gilda’s Clubs in the planning stages in the U.S. and Canada. Even more than the characters we remember, these clubs give lasting form to Radner’s memory.