Madeline Kahn

American singing actress Madeline Kahn (b. Boston, MA, September 29, 1942; d. New York, December 3, 1999) was known primarily for her comedy roles, especially in films by Mel Brooks (Blazing Saddles 1974, Young Frankenstein 1974, High Anxiety 1977, History of the World: Part I 1981). She also had a short but distinguished career on Broadway, in both musicals (Two by Two 1970, On the Twentieth Century 1978) and plays (Born Yesterday 1989, The Sisters Rosensweig 1993).

Madeline was the daughter of a Boston garment manufacturer named Wolfson. Her parents divorced when she was two; her mother moved with her to New York City and married a man named Kahn. Madeline had two half-siblings eventually, one from each of her parents’ second marriages.

At six Madeline was sent to a progressive boarding school in Pennsylvania while her mother pursued an acting career. She returned home to Queens in 1952 and attended Martin Van Buren High School, acting in a number of school productions and graduating in 1960. With a drama scholarship to Hofstra University, she trained as an opera singer and vacillated among majors, eventually earning a degree in speech therapy in 1964. She taught in the public schools briefly and began to audition for the professional theatre; she qualified for Actors’ Equity as a chorister in a revival of Kiss Me, Kate under the name of Madeline Wolfson.

Her first break on Broadway came after she changed her professional name to Kahn, in New Faces of 1968. Shortly thereafter, she sang Cunegonde in a special concert performance of Candide in honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 50th birthday. She appeared subsequently off-Broadway in the revue Promenade (1969) and had a featured role (singing her operatic high C) in Richard Rodgers’s Two by Two with Danny Kaye.

Then she made a wise move and went to Hollywood. The film medium made the most of Madeline’s comic genius, of which she may not herself have been aware. (Mel Brooks boasted that she could do anything she was asked, but was modest and shy in person.) The 1970s were Kahn’s finest years. Her first role, as Eunice in What’s Up, Doc? (1972) with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, scared the daylights out of her: “I was petrified of [Streisand] . . . It was my first movie and every single thing about it was new. I was petrified of the palm trees!”

Paper Moon (1973) with Ryan O’Neal followed, and Mel Brooks’s outrageous Blazing Saddles, in which she took off on Marlene Dietrich in Destry Rides Again as cabaret singer Lili Von Shtupp. (As late as 2006, Premiere magazine selected this as Number 31 in a list of the 100 greatest performances of all time.) Madeline was nominated for an Oscar® for Best Supporting Actress in both movies. Her comedic prowess reached another pinnacle in the array of false identities she took on for Neil Simon’s The Cheap Detective (1978), a spoof of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon. Among Kahn’s other films are The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (1975) with Gene Wilder, Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976), The Muppet Movie (1978), Wholly Moses! (1980), and Clue (1985).

Madeline Kahn returned to the New York stage from time to time, both in stage plays (Boom Boom Room, winning the 1974 Drama Desk Outstanding Performance Award and a nomination for a Tony®) and in musicals (On the Twentieth Century, with another nomination for a Tony®). She also starred in a 1977 Town Hall revival of She Loves Me. She had her own television sitcom in 1983, but it ended after only one season. She won a Daytime Emmy® Award in 1987 for a performance in the ABC After School Special, Wanted: The Perfect Guy.

Madeline Kahn’s later career included the leading role in the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday, for which she got another Tony® nomination, and a concert performance of Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle that was released on CD. As Dr. Gorgeous Teitelbaum in Wendy Wasserstein’s play The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), she won the Tony Award® for Best Actress outright, as well as the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play. In 1998 she recorded the voice of Gypsy the moth in A Bug’s Life (1998).

From 1996 Madeline Kahn was appearing as the eccentric Pauline in sixty episodes of the Cosby sitcom on television. Although she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early 1999, she did not quit the series. She even made another movie, the independent Judy Berlin, for which she received some of the most admiring reviews of her life. Kahn married her long-time companion, John Hansbury, in October, and died less than two months later.

 

– LEC