Madeline Kahn, a retrospective

Madeline Kahn was a comic legend who could do anything with her voice. She made bad movies good, good movies great and great movies classics.

A little Madeline Kahn goes a long way. Kahn didn’t have to star in a movie to be the most memorable thing in it. She didn’t need more than fifteen minutes of screen time to steal a movie. She made bad films good, good films great and great films classic. She appeared in three of The American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 funniest movies: Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein and What’s Up Doc? We weren’t even supposed to be rooting for her in What’s Up Doc? We were supposed to be rooting for Barbara Streisand, but how could we not love Madeline. Her baby talk whispers, little girl lisps, her entire speech impediment repertoire.  We loved even her most cloying portrayals, her most annoying attitudes. She took the care to milk the moments between the words to ooze whatever devastation they might bring and always did it with impeccable comic timing.  Her characters had some of the best names in film: Empress Nympho, Lili Von Schtupp, Trixie Delight.


Madeline Kahn is never doing just one thing onscreen. She insinuates interior and ulterior motives behind double and triple entendre. She imbues the most innocent lines with innuendo. When she sings, it’s usually in character and her character always has something else up her sleeves or under her derby. When she acts, she is always in two places: in the moment with whomever she is talking with, and in her head, somewhere else, calculating, scheming, worrying or just being so close to her menstrual cycle she could scream. She can be distracted, confused and preoccupied, often at the same time, without ever losing focus, without ever losing funny.  Kahn repeatedly said in interviews that she never thought of herself as a funny person, that it was hard work to be funny, but some of the best judges of funny in show business clamored to cast her. Neil Simon, Peter Bogdanovich, Carol Burnett and Bill Cosby all found channels for her comic genius. Mel Brooks gagged his crew when shooting her scenes to protect the takes from laughter, a trick he’d learned when filming Zero Mostel in The Producers. After working with Kahn, Brooks always kept a box of handkerchiefs on hand to stuff in the crew’s mouths. Kahn is just as funny singing a joke as she is telling it. She had a naturally beautiful operatic voice that could do gymnastics, whether in song or in character or caricature.

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Madeline Kahn debuted in Boston under the name Madeline Gail Wolfson. Her parents divorced when she was a kid and she moved with her mom to Queens. Her father, Bernard B. Wolfson, made clothes and her mother, Paula Kahn, chased acting roles in New York and set Madeline up in a boarding school in Pennsylvania. As a kid, Madeline liked to perform, but not in front of people. She and a friend were picked to sing “Cool Water” on Horn and Hardart’s TV show “Children’s Hour.” During their second performance, Madeline got upset watching a bunch of kids acting like “little savages” in the theater wings and started crying on camera. They weren’t asked back again. Kahn started in musical theater. Her mother pushed her to study music and drama at Hofstra University, but she majored in speech therapy, if only to better duet with Gilda Radner’s Baba Wawa on Saturday Night Live. After she graduated in 1964 she fell into a depression and realized she wanted to be an actor.


Madeline learned to sing opera to get tips while singing beer songs in a German restaurant, called the Bavarian Manor. She spent two years at the nightclub The Upstairs at the Downstairs in a comic ensemble that included Fannie Flagg and Lily Tomlin acting and singing in reviews and skits like “Dial-a-Deviant.” Madeline debuted on stage as a chorus girl in a Kiss Me, Kate revival.  She was informed that her part was cut from the play How Now, Dow Jones, backstage, on the night before the show was supposed to open on Broadway, by messenger. She almost quit show business.  A phone call from the producer Leonard Sillman got her out of bed when he cast her as one of the leads in New Faces of ’68; one of her co-stars was Robert Klein. She was asked to audition for a part in Candide at Lincoln Center while at a birthday party for Leonard Bernstein. Kahn was cast as Goldie, a Golden Girl from the Temple of the Golden Ram, in the Richard Rodgers musical Two by Two, about Noah and his ark. Danny Kaye tread water as Noah, but had an accident onstage three months into the run. He was wheeled back into the show in a knee-length cast and turned the theater into his own private vaudeville house, pretending to forget lines and trying to crack up his costars. Kaye treated the young featured player horribly and she never wanted to do Broadway again, but she continued performing on stage while making movies. She won a Tony nomination for her performance in David Rabe’s In the Boom Boom Room in 1973. She starred in a 1977 Town Hall revival of She Loves Me with “Brad Major” Barry Bostwick and “Googie Gomez” Rita Moreno. In 1978, she starred as Lily Garland in On the Twentieth Century, but either quit or was fired from the show early in the run, depending on who you ask.


After singing “how dry I am” in a Ban roll-on deodorant commercial, Madeline Kahn made her film debut in the 1968 short Ingmar Bergman parody De Düva (The Dove). Peter Bogdanovich cast her in her first feature as Ryan O’Neill’s controlling, tight-ass fiancée, Eunice Burns (“not A Eunice Burns, THE Eunice Burns,” she drips disdainfully when denied entry to a black-tie dinner), in the Golden Globe-nominated What’s Up, Doc? in 1972. Kahn first demurred because she thought that was a tasteless title and, because she was just getting known on Broadway, she thought she wasn’t yet ready to do a bad movie. She was afraid of Barbra Streisand, of winding up on the cutting room floor and of palm trees. Bogdanovich quickly cast her again in Paper Moon in 1973 as Trixie Delight, who “nobody started to call mademoiselle until she was 17 and started to get some bone structure.” She only had fifteen minutes of screen time, but she got to “sit up front with her big tits.” That line wasn’t in the script, but young Tatum O’Neill encouraged Kahn to go with it. Kahn was playful and sexy and sad and in a hurry. She lost her first Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination to her 10-year-old co-star, who was really the lead but was nominated in the supporting category because she was so young. O’Neal is still the youngest Oscar winner ever. Kahn would work with Bogdanovich again in 1976 but, sadly, that would be in At Long Last Love, which starred a singing and dancing Burt Reynolds and Cybil Shepherd. Bogdanovich took out full page ads to apologize for that.


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In 1973, Madeline Kahn played a schoolteacher in From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a children’s film based on E. L. Konigsburg’s novel about a sister and brother who run away from home to live in the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and find what looks like lost treasure. Originally cast as Agnes Gooch in the 1974 film Mame, she was fired by comic icon Lucille Ball over artistic differences. The producers wanted a contemporary approach for Agnes, but Ball wanted what Jane Connell did onstage, so they got Jane. (Not wanting to sound like she was peeling sour grapes, Kahn said Lucille Ball looked “fabulous as Mame.  I don’t know how they did it.  In person, she looks like a 103-year-old chorus girl, but in the movie she looks thirty-five.”) This freed Kahn to become legendary herself. Madeleine Kahn became a comic legend in 1974 with the one-two Mel Brooks punch of Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.


She made a German spectacle of herself as the seductive, saloon-singing spy, Lili von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles, which was co-written by Richard Pryor. She got Cleavon Little to loosen his bullets and prove wumours of “the gifts of his people” was “twoo.” She got another supporting actress nomination for her work alongside Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder and Slim Pickins. Her world famous wendition of “I’m So Tired” (“I’m tired, so tired.  I’ve had thousands of men again and again. They start with Byron and Shelley and jump on your belly and bust your balloon. They’re always coming and going and going and coming, and always too soon. Let’s face it; everything below the waist is kaput.” She was bushed.) closed Poland. It was a caricature of Marlene Dietrich’s vampy part in the 1939 classic western, Destry Rides Again. Kahn wears a blue pin-striped suit with a bowler hat, because she couldn’t get away with the tuxedo. (“Hallo, cowboy, is that a ten-gallon hat on your lap, or are you just enjoying the show?”) Premiere magazine ranked the von Shtupp role as #74 of the greatest performances of all time in their April 2006 issue.


The blonde in the turban was just as funny in black and white in Young Frankenstein. As Elizabeth, Dr. Frankenstein’s financier, Kahn prissily and fussily frustrates Gene Wilder (who wrote the script) because taffeta is so delicate, but finds the sweet mystery of life in the schwanstuker of his reanimated creation, played monstrously by Peter Boyle. It was love at first woof, as she streaked her hair to settles down with the man with the knobs to become Mrs. Zipperneck, freeing Dr. Frankenstein to marry Inga, the assistant with fabulous knockers, played by Teri Garr. Igor, played by the wild-eyed Marty Feldman, humped merrily while Cloris Leachman scared the horses as Frau Blücher. Kahn continued to take direction from Mel Brooks in High Anxiety in 1977 and in 1981 with History of the World, Part I. 


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In High Anxiety, Mel Brooks’ comic tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, Kahn plays Victoria Brisbane, the daughter of one of the patients (who thinks he’s a cocker spaniel) at the Psycho-Neurotic Institute for the Very, Very Nervous. Victoria barely represses her sexual longings as she gets closer to Brooks’ Dr. Thorndyke. When he cracks the mic chord like a whip while singing the title song, she reacts in a spasm of sadomasochistic ecstasy and when she mistakes Thorndyke’s labored breathing during a murder attempt as the heavy breathing of an obscene phone caller she responds “How did you get my room number? I am not going to listen to any more of this, I mean; I’ve had just about enough! What are you wearing? Jeans? You’re wearing jeans? I bet they’re tight.” Barry Levinson was one of the co-writers of the screenplay and appears in a cameo in the film. After seeing the movie, Hitchcock sent Brooks a case of expensive 1961 Château Haut-Brion wine with a note that said “A small token of my pleasure, have no anxiety about this.” Madeline Kahn followed the bouncing balls to select an escort for an evening’s orgy as Empress Nympho in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1 (“Could you please step on the same foot at the same time. My tits are falling off”). Competence, played by Dena Dietrich, helped her make her selection.



Kahn took a Brooks breaks to impersonate Bessie Bellwood, “a music hall singer who’s been dead for twelve and a half years” alongside Gene Wilder in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother in 1975. As Estie Del Ruth, she walked Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood in 1976. The film was directed by Michael Winner and also starred Bruce Dern, Teri Garr and Art Carney along with dozens of cameo appearances by actors and actresses from Hollywood’s golden age including Dead End Kid Huntz Hall as a Moving Man. She hired Peter Falk as the detective Lou Peckinpaugh to find her sister when she played Wanda Coleman, er Gilda Dabney, I mean, Chloe Lamar, did I say Barbara Stanwyck? No, “Carmen Montenegro. That’s my last one, I promise!” in the Neil Simon satire of all things Bogart, The Cheap Detective, in 1978. The film also starred Louise Fletcher, Ann-Margret, Eileen Brennan, Stockard Channing, Marsha Mason, Sid Caesar, John Houseman, Dom DeLuise, the ever-youthful Abe Vigoda, James Coco, Phil Silvers, Scatman Crothers and Dr. Zaius lookalike Paul Williams. She also put in a cameo in The Muppet Movie in 1979 and she played First Lady Mrs. Link to Bob Newhart’s plain soup-dreaming U.S. President in 1980’s First Family. Also in 1980 she played in the screen version of the play Happy Birthday, Gemini with Rita Moreno, Alan Rosenberg, David Marshall Grant and Sarah Holcomb.


Kahn played a witch in the 1980 Bible spoof, Wholly Moses! With more than a nod and a wink to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Dudley Moore slurred the part of Herschel, who makes idols during Old Testament times. He thinks he’s God’s prophet and his life parallels Moses. It was a film by Gary Weis and also featured Larraine Newman, James Coco, Paul Sand, Jack Gilford, Dom DeLuise, John Houseman, David Lander and John Ritter.  Richard Pryor was signed to do a one-day cameo as the Pharaoh on the last day of shooting. He brought production to a standstill when he didn’t show up, was almost replaced by Cleavon Little, but finally arrived to balk at playing a scene with a lion by his throne. Dudley’s Hershel hitches a ride on Aunt Yochabelle’s Aphrodisiacs and Potions wagon to New Sodom, the most wickedest city.

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Kahn starred in her own TV series Madeline, which was based on the British series Pig in the Middle. She played Madeline Wayne who is married to a romance novelist who writes under the name Crystal Love. Love is really a pretty bland guy named Charlie and Madeline wants to go swinging and eat health food. The show aired on ABC from September 27, 1983 to March 13, 1984.  Kahn starred in ABC Comedy Factory’s pilot episode of Chameleon in 1986, but ABC never aired the show. She won a Daytime Emmy in 1987 for playing in the ABC Afterschool Special, Wanted: The Perfect Guy. Kahn returned to the stage for the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday where she recreated the role made famous by Judy Holliday. In 1993 she won a Tony Award for her role as Dr. Gorgeous in the play The Sisters Rosensweig by Wendy Wasserstein.


In 1985 Kahn joined a stellar comic ensemble cast with Tim Curry, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Lesley Ann Warren, Christopher Lloyd, Michael McKean, Colleen Camp and Lee Ving in the comic mystery Clue, based on the board game. Released with the gimmick of having three alternate endings that played in different theaters, Roger Ebert said it didn’t matter which ending you saw, they all pretty much sucked. A professional black widow, Mrs. White had already buried two husbands. Her first husband had disappeared, but she explains that because he was an illusionist, that was his job. He never reappeared because “he wasn’t a very good illusionist.” The second husband was a “stupidly optimistic man. I mean, I’m afraid it came as a great shock to him when he died, but, he was found dead at home. His head had been cut off, and so had his, uh.” Although she proclaims that “life after death is as improbable as sex after marriage,” her husband’s death allowed her to append her beliefs, “now that he’s dead, I have a life.”  Blasted by critics at the time, who blamed John Landis for writing the script, Clue has gone on to become a cult favorite and Kahn’s comic “flames” soliloquy, which was improvised on set, is considered a classic comedy bit. Singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” Kahn also proved she could pull laughs with musical counterpoint.


Kahn’s best work has been in great ensembles. She was a stellar host on Saturday Night Live and guested on the Carol Burnett Show. In a “Mama” skit on Carol Burnett’s variety show she plays Mavis Danton, an actor/director of the local playhouse theater whose claim to fame is her edited-out-of-the-TV-version role in Catwomen on Mars. She coaches Eunice to act a small part filled with “numbed despair and doomed frivolity.” Later in the show, Kahn plumbed the comic possibilities of Jeanette MacDonald singing ooh. Kahn played Betty in Yellowbeard, Marty Feldman’s last film appearance. She advises her studious son, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life is that learning things never taught me nothing and books is the worst. Last time I read a book, I was raped.” The 1983 swashbuckling comedy starred Graham Chapman along with Cheech and Chong, Peters Cook and Boyle, Eric Idle, James Mason and John Cleese. In 1994, Kahn played Mrs. Munchnick in the holiday farce Mixed Nuts, which was based on the 1982 French comedy, Le Père Noël est une ordure and directed by Nora Ephron. The film also starred Steve Martin, Rita Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Garry Shandling, Juliette Lewis, Adam Sandler and Jon Stewart. She throws cold water on an obscene phone caller by admitting “I’m simply crushed. Here, I’ve waited all my whole life for you and now you don’t even want me. Do go on, I do believe you were discussing my cherry.”

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Although best known as a comedian, Kahn had originated dramatic roles on stage in 1974’s In the Boom Boom Room and 1977’s Marco Polo Sings a Solo. She played Molly Ringwald’s mother in the 1990 film Betsy’s Wedding. Kahn appeared as George C. Scott’s sister-in-law for one season on Mister President in 1987 and played a gossip columnist on the TV series New York News. Madeline Kahn gave a deeply nuanced performance in the brief role of Martha Mitchell in Oliver Stone’s Nixon from 1995. (Martha Mitchell and Madeline Kahn both died at the age of 57). Kahn had played Pat Nixon when she hosted Saturday Night Live in a classic skit where she reminisces about the last days of her husband’s presidency. In the sketch the president was played by Dan Aykroyd, who debated with White House portraits whether to resign. He sneers at Kennedy’s out of control sex life saying while he’s president that sort of thing would never happen. Kahn ends her reminiscences by writing “Never. Never.”


Kahn moved next door to Bill Cosby when he cast her as the slightly eccentric Pauline Fox on his sitcom Cosby starting in 1996. When asked by Cosby whether she loved him, Pauline responds with “I live with that potential every single day.” Kahn recorded her role in the animated movies My Little Pony: The Movie and The Magic 7 and did the voice of Gypsy the moth in A Bug’s Life in 1998. Kahn received some of the best reviews of her career her final film, the 1999 independent movie Judy Berlin. Kahn played Alice Gold, her husband is a school principal who has a fling with a schoolteacher. The movie first screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1999 Cannes Film Festival and it won Eric Mendelsohn the 1999 Sundance International Film Festival directing prize.


Madeline Kahn married her long-time companion, John Hansbury, in October 1999. She died on Dec. 3, 1999, just a month after she publicly announced that she was sick with ovarian cancer, the same disease the prematurely struck down her friend and co-performer, Gilda Radner. Mel Brooks said “Madeline Kahn was maybe the single best comedian that ever lived. She left us much too soon.” There is a bench in Central Park dedicated to her.

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