My good friend Stratburst has been urging me to do a Classic Hotties profile on Madeline Kahn for months now. And rightfully so. There is nothing quite as simultaneously endearing and attractive as people who can make us laugh. Put together all the hottest stuck up, self indulgent and neurotic people on the face of the Earth and they wouldn't amount to much of anything compared to a plain Jane who can make you bust a gut laughing. Of course, being plain never applied to Madeline. And as far as funny people go, they don't get much funnier.
Born Madeline Gail Wolfson in Boston, MA on Sept. 29, 1942, Madeline's parents were high school sweethearts who got themselves in the family way at only 17. When her father abandoned the family shortly after returning from World War II, Madeline and her mother Paula went to New York, where her mother pursued her career as an actress. Madeline was sent to boarding school in Pennsylvania and eventually developed her own desire to perform. Attending high school in Queens, NY, she earned a drama scholarship to Hofstra University. There she pursued her acting ambitions, though she found herself somewhat discouraged by her professor's criticism of her childlike voice, which he predicted would become an impedance to her acting career. Madeline thus graduated in 1964, not with a degree in theater, but rather in speech therapy.
Madeline began auditioning for Broadway roles under the stage name Madeline Kahn shortly after graduation from college. She made her debut as a member of the chorus in a revival of Kiss Me, Kate, but further success eluded her for the next couple years. She was cast, then written out of plays How Now, Dow Jones and Promises, Promises before either show reached Broadway. She never let those failures get the better of her though, finally earning her first big break on Broadway in the show New Faces of 1968, receiving positive reviews for her performance. More stage work soon followed. With perfect comic timing and powerful vocal range, Madeline wowed audiences, delivering punchlines and dropping high C notes with equal ease. She quickly became renowned for her larger-than-life performances. Yet offstage, Madeline was an entirely different person. Very shy and reserved, she kept her personal life just that throughout her career.
Madeline made her film debut in 1968's THE DOVE, a parody of director Ingmar Bergman dramas that earned an Oscar nomination for Best Short Subject. In 1972, she co-starred in WHAT'S UP DOC, playing Ryan O'Neal's overbearing fiancée. This was the role that launched her movie career, helping to re-team her with O'Neal for 1973's PAPER MOON. She was cast as Trixie Delight, a stripper in Depression era mid-west who pals around with O'Neal's grifter character and his daughter. Her performance earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress that year and put her in the perfect position to catch the eye of cinema's next great king of comedy.
The first team up of Madeline and Mel Brooks was the classic 1974 Western parody BLAZING SADDLES, playing Lili Von Shtupp, a sexy saloon singer with a thick German accent. The role garnered her another Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe nod and in many ways became the role to beat in her time as a regular Mel Brooks player.
Madeline's follow-up role to SADDLES came that same year when she appeared her second Brooks film, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, playing the stuck up fiance to her SADDLES co-star and other frequent Brooks player, Gene Wilder. Just like with SADDLES, this film was literally crammed with laughs. Still, her character's not-so-romantic fling with the good doctor's monstrous creation, played by actor Peter Boyle, stole the show.
Madeline's next Brooks role was as the Kim Novak-like mystery woman in Brook's Hitchcock spoof HIGH SOCIETY in 1977. Donning blonde locks and drenched in Louis Vuitton, the role marked a departure for her as far as Brooks films went. She played a bubble-headed damsel in distress, with very few of her characteristic scene-stealing moments. Those would come later in her final collaboration with Brooks, 1981's HISTORY OF THE WORLD, PART 1. Cast as the sexually voracious Empress Nympho, Madeline once again combined a flare for outrageous comedy with her remarkable singing range, producing a fitting send off for her time as a regular in the Brooks stable of actors.
While her Mel Brooks movies may be some of the most well remembered of her films, Madeline did do other things. She teamed up with Gene Wilder again for the film SHERLOCK HOLMES' SMARTER BROTHER in 1975, making good use of her pipes as an inspiring opera singer. She worked with Neil Simon for his noir parody THE CHEAP DETECTIVE in 1978. Madeline also stayed true to the stage, earning Tony nominations for performances in shows like In the Boom Boom Room and The Twentieth Century.
While roles continued to come, big hits proved somewhat elusive for Madeline in the 1980s. Quality film roles were few and far between and a move into television proved just as fruitless. One bright spot came in 1985 with an adaptation of a Parker Brothers board game. While not the biggest success during its initial theatrical run, Madeline's performance as the aptly named Mrs. White in CLUE, alongside fellow comedy vets Tim Curry, Christopher Lloyd and Michael McKean, helped make the movie a cult hit on home video and cable. 30 years later, CLUE has become a beloved classic of the 80s, due in no small part to Madeline's turn as a quirky black widow.
By the early 90s Madeline's career was on an upswing. She scored success on Broadway in a production of The Sisters Rosensweig, winning a Tony for her performance. She had a small part in the Oliver Stone biopic NIXON and was a regular on Bill Cosby's follow up to The Cosby Show, simply titled Cosby, playing his neighbor. In 1998, she was an early player in the rapidly growing animated CGI movie scene, most popularly in the film A BUG'S LIFE, voicing a gypsy moth. Sadly, the next year Madeline was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Despite receiving treatment, her cancer proved especially malignant and within a few months of her diagnosis, on Dec. 3, 1999, Madeline Kahn was dead, struck down by the same disease that had killed fellow comedienne Gilda Radner a few years before.
And just like with Gilda's loss, Madeline's sudden and tragic death was a shock to her many fans and friends, most of them completely unaware of her illness. 15 years later, her loss is still palpable. While her body of work is no less delightful, the postscript is often a lament on how many more laughs Madeline might have given us, had she not gone away so soon.