The first time I met Gilda was at her final audition for Godspell in Toronto in 1972. She came onstage in overalls, with her hair in high pigtails, and sang “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” with such a naïve enthusiasm that everyone in the room fell apart and fell in love with her. And of course she got the role. Later we found out she knew the show and which part she was right for, and she had dressed and picked the song for it. So not only was she adorable, but she knew exactly what she was doing. That’s a pretty potent combination.
Where does one start with John? He was an immense talent who transformed physically to play characters. He didn’t have to go on a diet or anything. If he was Captain Kirk on the Starship Enterprise, his waist just went in. He became the shape of Captain Kirk. No one knows how he did it. And then he became a full-on musical performer with the Blues Brothers. He was strong and went full-out in everything he did.
Linda Ronstadt called Dan a “mental photojournalist.” It was apt. He had expertise in many fields beyond a normal human being. He knew about things like extraterrestrial beings and rocket science and was able to pull from his immense knowledge as backup for his comedy. He had an incredible ear, which helped in impersonations and dialects. And he had a real everyman’s sense of humor.
Chevy connected with viewers because he was so original. Nobody had seen anyone like him before. He wasn’t influenced by the comics of The Ed Sullivan Show, like the rest of us were. I don’t know where his comedy came from. It was brand new. He’s just one of the truly funny guys.
Garrett was the conscience of the ensemble. His face was angelic. To me, he brought a goodness to anything he was in. He was musical, and he didn’t change when he became famous. He’s a salt of the earth man, and he brought those values to his comedy.
Jane was about the same age as all of us, but somehow she was the mature one. Without saying anything, she was able to get the wilder ones into place and smarten them up. By example, she set a standard of professionalism and backed it up with huge acting talent.
Laraine came from Los Angeles in the ’70s. She had a lot of experience with the West Coast scene through the Groundlings — she was experimental in her comedy and adept at developing characters. She was game to try anything. No role was out of her range. She would figure out a way to play it and hit a home run every time.
Going live with a revolutionary new brand of comedy created a lifelong bond among the cast. Everybody was really nice and cut from the same cloth. Everybody’s still close today, all these years later. That had something to do with Lorne as well.
Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Jane Curtin, Garrett Morris, Laraine Newman and Gilda Radner. They may have been Not Ready for Prime Time Players, but the original cast of Saturday Night Live was “a hell of a team,” says Paul Shaffer, who played in the NBC show’s band starting with its 1975 premiere and later appeared in sketches as characters like rock promoter Don Kirshner. (“I was just as much of a ham as the rest of them and was dying to get on camera,” Shaffer says.)
“Lorne Michaels had something in mind when he hired each one of them,” says Shaffer of the ensemble, who were gathered from such disparate locales as Toronto, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles. “Everyone was from a theatrical background, whether it was from Second City or the Groundlings,” says Shaffer. “No one had any television experience.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating the original cast of Saturday Night Live's induction in 2017.