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Yearns For Motherhood : Gilda Radner In Life-career Squeeze

July 23, 1986|NANCY MILLS

"I'm at the edge of growing up," Gilda Radner says almost in a whisper. "It's really scary." Now 39 and well into the second year of her marriage to actor-director Gene Wilder, Radner has put six years between herself and the adolescent craziness of "Saturday Night Live."

No longer is she Roseanne Roseannadanna, Baba Wawa or any of the other characters she played during her five years in the TV fishbowl. Instead, Radner glories in playing plain Mrs. Wilder, as in "How many pounds of parsnips would you like, Mrs. Wilder?"

During her stay in London, where she filmed "Haunted Honeymoon," due to be released Friday, she didn't even mind sharing Wilder's bathwater. "There wasn't enough hot water for two baths," she giggles. "So whoever had the earlier call got in first. It brought us closer together."

Radner describes "Haunted Honeymoon" as "a Gothic horror story about a radio actor and actress in 1939. They're going to get married, so he takes her off to meet his Aunt Kate (played by Dom DeLuise) and the rest of the family at a dusty, cobweb-filled mansion. Gene and I end up looking like Hansel and Gretel. Gene calls it a 'comedy chiller.' "

This is the couple's third film together. They met and fell in love four years ago on "Hanky Panky." Wilder wrote her a supporting role in his "The Woman in Red" and now a starring role in "Haunted Honeymoon."

"It has taken me a long time to discover what a different discipline film making is," Radner says, sipping from a cup of nettle tea. "I can't get away with what I can do on stage or TV. Gene and I have 'seminars' together about movie acting and how to be relaxed and comfortable. I ask him questions and just milk him for information.

"For me, this is a part very similar to my own life. I wear a wedding gown in 95% of the movie. Since I didn't wear a gown when Gene and I got married, I asked the 'Haunted Honeymoon' photographer to make me a wedding album!"

Radner grew up in Detroit, a chubby little girl who discovered early that humor made people forget about her appearance. Performing was more important than anything else. She spent six years in the University of Michigan's theater department before daring herself to tackle the world.

"I was a scared little kid, but I had to get out of Detroit," she says. "My bravery was rebellion. There were things I wanted to do."

She followed a boyfriend to Toronto and joined the cast of "Godspell" and then "Second City." In 1974, she went to New York because she was offered a job on the "National Lampoon Show." "I took it because I didn't have a boyfriend and didn't see any prospects," she says, only half-joking. "Love and romance have always been the main motivation in my life."

When "Saturday Night Live" started, producer Lorne Michaels invited her to join the cast. Suddenly the "scared little kid" from Detroit was the national sweetheart. The love-in ended five years later when she left the show.

"I don't miss 'Saturday Night Live,' " Radner insists. "I feel less of a need for the fulfillment that performance used to give. It used to be that if I had a stretch of time where I wasn't working, I'd be petrified. Now I look forward to it."

Since 1980, she has made five films and appeared in one Broadway play. Before she met Wilder, she had been married briefly to a rock musician. Wilder had been married twice before.

"I've settled down and gotten off the treadmill," she says about her relationship with Wilder. "I've learned that there's much more to life and that I don't have to do everything right away. As long as I can walk and jump I'll still perform, but I no longer feel such a compulsion. When you settle down, there's more of a chance to have a family."

Radner yearns for motherhood. "I always thought I'd live in the same house and wear print dresses and have lots of animals and children," she says wistfully. She's not complaining, just hoping.

"It's a lucky blessing to be in love and learn to be able to work together in harmony," she says about her relationship with Wilder. "But it's tremendously difficult.

"Usually what causes us to flare up is if I'm irritable or get bossy. Sometimes I try to control things that aren't my business. I hate to admit it, but generally I'm wrong. Sometimes there's an inkling of truth in it, but I've blown it out of proportion. If it happens on the set, we have to talk it out right away. Two people can hurt each other more because they're husband and wife."

The show business archives are littered with outdated clippings about husband-and-wife teams that have broken up. To avoid joining that list, Radner senses she should stay at Wilder's side, even if it means curtailing her career.

"The truth is that I've been thinking about going back to work full time," she says. "But I can't seem to make that decision. I still hesitate, knowing I can do it when I'm 50 or 60.

"Now that 'Haunted Honeymoon' is finished, Gene is working on another screenplay. I'm just running around driving him crazy. For him, writing, directing and acting in a movie takes 18 months. For me, acting in a movie takes three months."

To fill the excess time, Radner is trying to develop a writing career. She co-wrote "Roseanne Roseannadanna's 'Hey, Get Back to Work!' Book" in 1983. "Now I'm working with a collaborator on a screenplay, a comedy about a girl not unlike myself," she reports. "Also, I've sent some of my writings to a literary agent. I've had four rejections from magazines so far.

"I've been talking with my manager about doing specials. But I like this movie work, and I want to keep trying till I get it right. And I want to be able to travel with Gene.

"If I could just figure out the balance," she sighs, just like millions of women have sighed before her. "I'm caught in the middle--between life and career."

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