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Starring Madeline Kahn
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Starring Madeline Kahn - 3/15

A much-loved comic presence in film and on stage, Madeline Kahn was an Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning actress whose unbridled turns in "Paper Moon" (1973), "Blazing Saddles" (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1975) made her a favorite of critics and audiences alike for three decades. She sprang from the Broadway stage to movies in the early 1970s, and quickly established herself with her combination of dizzy comedy and earthy sexiness, exemplified by her marble-mouthed vixen Lili Von Shtupp in "Blazing Saddles." Kahn struggled to maintain her box office status in the 1980s, but found greater success on stage, winning a Tony award for "The Sisters Rosensweig" in 1993. Her death from ovarian cancer in 1999 robbed the entertainment community of one of its most talented and appreciated members.

Born Madeline Gail Wolfson in Boston, MA on Sept. 29, 1942, her parents were Bernard Wolfson, a garment manufacturer, and Paula Kahn, an aspiring actress. The pair were high school sweethearts, and their daughter was born when Paula was only 17. Wolfson left his family shortly after his return from World War II, and Paula Kahn took her daughter to New York, where she pursued her career. Kahn was sent to a boarding school in Pennsylvania, where she developed her own interest in performing. She was soon sent to Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, NY, where she earned a drama scholarship to Hofstra University. There, she continued to act while exploring a number of majors. Warned by an over-zealous professor that her childlike voice would be a hindrance for a professional acting career, she graduated in 1964 with a degree in speech therapy.

She began auditioning for stage roles shortly after leaving Hofstra, and after taking the stage name of Madeline Kahn, she made her debut as a member of the chorus in a revival of "Kiss Me, Kate." However, success eluded her for the next few years; she was written out of "How Now, Dow Jones" and "Promises, Promises" before either show reached Broadway. Undaunted, she was cast in "New Faces of 1968," which became her big break. Buoyed by the positive reviews for her performance, she soon graduated to other stage work, including a special performance of the operetta "Candide" and the off-Broadway revue "Promenade." On stage, she impressed audiences with her comic timing and stunning vocal range, as evidenced in "The Golden Ram," a deliberately silly number from the 1970 musical "Two By Two" which concluded with a jaw-dropping high C note. Despite her on-stage persona, Kahn was reportedly a very shy person, and kept her personal life out of the limelight.

Kahn made her film debut in "De Duve" ("The Dove") (1968), a hilarious parody of director Ingmar Bergman's cerebral dramas that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject. In 1972, she co-starred in What's Up, Doc as Ryan O'Neal's high-strung fiancée, which launched her film career in earnest. She re-teamed with O'Neal for 1973's "Paper Moon," which cast her as a stripper who tags along with O'Neal's grifter and his preternaturally wise daughter (Tatum O'Neal). Her turn, marked by equal parts silliness and sexiness, earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress and set the tone for future film appearances, which found her gleefully subverting her natural comeliness, which one writer described as a Botticelli angel with a malicious grin.

Director Mel Brooks was perhaps the most skilled at exploiting the dichotomy in Kahn's performances; he created the characters that allowed Kahn to stretch the farthest in terms of zaniness. Their first effort together, the outrageous Western parody "Blazing Saddles" (1974), earned her a second Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nod as saloon singer Lili Von Shtupp, a Dietrich-esque seductress with an impenetrable German accent. Prior to its production, she was cast as Agnes Gooch in the 1974 film version of "Mame" with Lucille Ball, and reportedly left the project or was fired from it in order to appear in "Saddles." Whatever the case, it was a cagey move, as it led to a string of appearances for Brooks that became Kahn's most memorable film roles.

She landed another Golden Globe nomination as Gene Wilder's uptight fiancée in Young Frankenstein (1975), who finds fulfillment via his Monster (Peter Boyle), before playing a Kim Novak-esque mystery woman in "High Anxiety" (1977), Brooks' tribute to and parody of Alfred Hitchcock's films. Their final collaboration together was the broad farce "History of the World Part 1" (1981), which cast her as the voracious Empress Nympho. Between projects for Brooks, she played similar roles in films by his frequent collaborator, Gene Wilder, like "Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" (1975), which made excellent use of her singing voice as an inspiring opera singer, and Neil Simon, who cast her as a femme fatale in his amusing noir parody, "The Cheap Detective" (1978). During this period, Kahn also remained active on stage, landing Tony nominations for David Rabe's "In the Boom Boom Room" in 1973 and "On the Twentieth Century" in 1978. Her stint in the latter show was short-lived; she reportedly left due to damage to her vocal chords, which in turn launched the theater career of her understudy, Judy Kaye.

Kahn found it difficult to find good material for her 1980s-era film roles. Her projects during this period were largely miserable flops, including a ghastly adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's "Slapstick (Of Another Kind)" (1982) with Jerry Lewis and the troubled comedy "Yellowbeard" (1983). Her attempt at a sitcom, "Oh Madeline" (ABC, 1983-84), with Kahn as a bored housewife whose attempts to spice up her life led to frequent slapstick moments, brought another Golden Globe nomination, but disappeared from the airwaves after only one season. A similar fate befell "Mr. President" (Fox, 1987-88), which cast her as the sister of George C. Scott's Commander in Chief, who assumes First Lady status after his wife departs the White House. More successful was a 1987 appearance on an "ABC Afterschool Special" (ABC, 1972-2005) as a lonely mom whose son (Ben Affleck) submits a personal ad in an attempt to find her the perfect mate.

Kahn scored a personal triumph with her performance in the Broadway production of Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1993). Her performance as the affluent Gorgeous Rosensweig swept the New York theatrical awards, including the Tonys, Outer Circle Awards and Drama Desk Awards. She later enjoyed a bit part in Oliver Stone's sprawling biopic "Nixon" (1995) as Martha Mitchell, the brittle wife of U.S Attorney General John Mitchell, and was featured alongside Kelsey Grammer, Michael Richards, Patricia Clarkson and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in the Neil Simon-penned comedy "London Suite" (NBC, 1996). Kahn was also a regular on "Cosby" (CBS, 1996-2000) as the neighbor to Bill Cosby's grumpy retiree.

After lending her unmistakable voice to a variety of animated projects, most notably the Pixar feature "A Bug's Life" (1999), she made her final film appearance in the indie drama "Judy Berlin" (1999) as the eccentric wife of a small town principal. But that same year, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite treatment, the disease progressed rapidly, and on Dec. 3, 1999, Kahn died at the age of 57. Much like fellow comedienne Gilda Radner who was struck down by the same disease, Kahn's loss was felt deeply by both the members and fans of film, stage and television comedy.


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