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Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue, 1985
|Born||Madeline Gail Wolfson
September 29, 1942
|Died||December 3, 1999 (aged 57)
New York City, New York
Cause of death
|Occupation||actress, singer, comedienne|
(October–December 1999; her death)
Kahn was best known for her comedic roles in such films as What's Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973),( both directed by Peter Bogdanovitch), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) and History of the World, Part I (1981) (all directed by Mel Brooks). For Paper Moon and Blazing Saddles, she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
She won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1987 for ABC Afterschool Special, and having previously been nominated for the Tony Award for the 1978 revival of On the Twentieth Century and the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday, she won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the original 1992 production of The Sisters Rosensweig. Her other films included The Cheap Detective (1978), City Heat (1983), Clue (1985) and Nixon (1995).
Early lifeKahn was born Madeline Gail Wolfson in Boston, the daughter of Bernard B. Wolfson, a garment manufacturer, and his wife, Freda (née Goldberg). She was raised in a non-observant Jewish family. Her parents divorced when Kahn was two, and she and her mother moved to New York City. In 1953, Freda married Hiller Kahn—who later adopted Madeline—and eventually changed her name to Paula Kahn. Kahn had two half-siblings: Jeffrey (from her mother's marriage to Kahn) and Robyn (from Bernard Wolfson's second marriage).
In 1948, Kahn was sent to a progressive boarding school in Pennsylvania and stayed there until 1952. During that time, her mother pursued her acting dream. Kahn soon began acting herself and performed in a number of school productions. In 1960, she graduated from Martin Van Buren High School in Queens, where she earned a drama scholarship to Hofstra University on Long Island. At Hofstra, she studied drama, music, and speech therapy. After changing her major a number of times, Kahn graduated from Hofstra in 1964 with a degree in speech therapy. She was a member of a local sorority on campus, Delta Chi Delta.
CareerWhen asked on television by Kitty Carlisle and Charles Nelson Reilly how she began the opera aspect of her career she said, "It's so hard to determine exactly when I began or why, singing. The Muse was definitely not in attendance. I'll tell you exactly." She was a singing waitress at a Bavarian restaurant called Bavarian Manor, a Hofbräuhaus in upstate New York, while she was a college student, to earn money. She sang musical comedy numbers during shows.
There was a really important customer there, a big Italian man, who shouted out to me, 'Sing Madame Butterfly,' and of course he didn't mean the whole opera. He meant that one very popular aria, 'un Bel Di'. So if I was to come back the next summer to earn more money during the next year I'd better know that aria. You know, and I didn't know anything about it; I just learned that one aria and a few others and then one thing led to another and I studied that, and I discovered that I could sing that, sort of, that way. But my first actual thing that I did was Candide for Leonard Bernstein's 50th birthday at Philharmonic Hall - at the time that's what it was called. And I don't know if that was an opera but it was very hard to sing. I actually have done 'Musetta' in La Bohème a long time ago in Washington DC. I mean, utterly terrifying. I mean basically I feel as though I was asked to do it and I did it.
1960sKahn began auditioning for professional acting roles shortly after her graduation from Hofstra; on the side, she briefly taught public school in Levittown, New York. Just before adopting the professional name Madeline Kahn (Kahn was her stepfather's surname), she made her stage debut as a chorus girl in a revival of Kiss Me, Kate, which led her to join Actors' Equity. Her part in the flop How Now, Dow Jones was written out before the 1967 show reached Broadway, as was her role as Miss Whipple in the original production of Promises, Promises. She earned her first break on Broadway with Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968. In 1968, she also performed her first professional lead in a special concert performance of the operetta Candide in honor of Leonard Bernstein's 50th birthday. In 1969, she appeared Off Broadway in the musical Promenade.
1970sShe appeared in two Broadway musicals in the 1970s: a featured role in Richard Rodgers' 1970 Noah's Ark-themed show Two by Two (her silly waltz "The Golden Ram," capped by a high C, can be heard on the show's cast album) and a leading lady turn as Lily Garland in 1978's On the Twentieth Century. She left (or was fired from) the latter show early in its run, yielding the role to her understudy, Judy Kaye. She also starred in a 1977 Town Hall revival of She Loves Me (opposite Barry Bostwick and original London cast member Rita Moreno).
Kahn's film debut was in the 1968 short De Düva (The Dove). Her feature debut was as Ryan O'Neal's hysterical fiancée in Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? (1972) starring Barbra Streisand. Her film career continued with Paper Moon (1973), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Kahn was cast in the role of Agnes Gooch in the 1974 film Mame, but star Lucille Ball fired Kahn due to artistic differences. (Note: several of Ball's biographies claim Kahn was eager to be released from the role so that she could join the cast of Blazing Saddles, a film about to go into production; however, Kahn stated in a 1996 interview with Charlie Rose that she had indeed been fired from Mame.)
A close succession of Kahn comedies — Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and High Anxiety (1977) — were all directed by Mel Brooks, who many Hollywood observers claimed was able to bring out the best of Kahn's comic talents. Their last collaboration was 1981's History of the World, Part I. For Blazing Saddles, she was again nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. In the April 2006 issue of Premiere magazine, her performance as Lili von Schtüpp in Saddles was selected as #74 on its list of the 100 greatest performances of all time. In 1978, Kahn's comic screen persona reached another peak with Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective (1978), a spoof of both Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, directed by Robert Moore.
1980sKahn's roles were primarily comedic rather than dramatic, though the 1970s found her originating roles in two plays that had both elements: 1974's In the Boom Boom Room and 1977's Marco Polo Sings a Solo. After her success in Brooks' films, she played in a number of less successful films in the 1980s (perhaps most memorably as Mrs. White in the 1985 film Clue). Her less remembered roles included First Lady Mrs. Link in the 1980 spoof First Family. She appeared in The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother (1975) opposite Gene Wilder, the animated film My Little Pony: The Movie (1986), the holiday farce Mixed Nuts (1994) and a cameo in 1979's The Muppet Movie.
In 1983, she starred in her own short-lived TV sitcom, Oh Madeline, which ended after only one season due to poor ratings. In 1986 she starred in ABC Comedy Factory's pilot episode of Chameleon, which never aired on the fall schedule. In 1987, Kahn won a Daytime Emmy award for her performance in the ABC Afterschool Special Wanted: The Perfect Guy.
1990sLate in her career, Kahn returned to the stage, first in the role first embodied by Judy Holliday, in the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday. Later she played Dr. Gorgeous in Wendy Wasserstein's 1993 play, The Sisters Rosensweig, a role which earned her a Tony Award. Kahn played Molly Ringwald's mother in the 1990 film Betsy's Wedding. Kahn played the corrupt mayor in a concert performance of Anyone Can Whistle. She appeared in Nixon as Martha Beall Mitchell. She continued to appear in movies.
In the early 1990s, Kahn recorded a voice for the animated movie The Magic 7. Her most notable role at that time was on the sitcom Cosby (1996–1999) as Pauline, the eccentric neighbor. She also voiced Gypsy the moth in A Bug's Life (1998). Kahn received some of the best reviews of her career for her Chekhovian turn in the 1999 independent movie Judy Berlin, her final film.
Illness and deathKahn developed ovarian cancer in 1998. She underwent treatment and continued to work on Cosby and married John Hansbury in October 1999. The disease spread rapidly, and she died on December 3, 1999. Her body was cremated. A bench dedicated to her memory was erected in Central Park by her husband John Hansbury and her brother Jeffery Kahn.
|De Düva (The Dove)||1968|
|What's Up, Doc?||1972|
|From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler||1973|
|At Long Last Love||1975|
|The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother||1975|
|Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood||1976|
|The Cheap Detective||1978|
|The Muppet Movie||1979|
|Happy Birthday, Gemini||1980|
|History of the World, Part I||1981|
|Slapstick of Another Kind||1982|
|My Little Pony: The Movie||1986 (voice)|
|An American Tail||1986 (voice)|
|Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book||1992 (Narrator)|
|A Bug's Life||1998 (voice)|
|The Magic 7||2009 (voice - produced 1990-1993 - unreleased)|
|Kiss Me, Kate||1965|
|Just for Openers||1965|
|Below the Belt||1966|
|How Now, Dow Jones||1967 (replaced by Brenda Vaccaro prior to opening)|
|Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968||1968|
|Two by Two||1970|
|In the Boom Boom Room||1973|
|She Loves Me||1977|
|On the Twentieth Century||1978|
|The Sisters Rosensweig||1993|
|Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall||1993|
|Anyone Can Whistle||1995|
|Dear World||1998 (workshop)|
|Show||Year / Episode|
|The Carol Burnett Show||Guest star: 1975|
|Saturday Night Live||Three episodes hosted: 1976, 1977 and 1995|
|The Muppet Show||Episode 209 1977|
|Sesame Street||Episode 1112 1978|
|Sesame Street||Episode 1576 1981|
|Comedy Factory CTV (1985–86)||Season 2, Episode 6:Chameleon 1986|
|Monkey House||1991 (canceled after 7 episodes)|
|Road to Avonlea||Episode 211 1991|
|Lucky Luke||1993(canceled after 8 episodes)|
|Sesame Street||Episode 3136 1994|
|New York News||1995 (canceled after 13 episodes)|
|Cosby||cast member 1996–1999|
|Little Bill||1999, dedication|
Awards and nominationsAward wins:
- 1984 People's Choice Awards for Best Actress in a New Television Series for Oh Madeline, ABC
- 1987 Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Performer in Children's Programming for ABC Afterschool Special
- 1993 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for The Sisters Rosensweig
- 1973 Golden Globe for Most Promising Newcomer for What's Up, Doc?
- 1974 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon
- 1974 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Paper Moon
- 1974 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for In the Boom Boom Room
- 1975 Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress for Young Frankenstein
- 1975 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Blazing Saddles
- 1978 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical for On the Twentieth Century
- 1989 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for Born Yesterday