Madeline Kahn (September 29, 1942 – December 3, 1999) was an American actress, comedienne and singer. She was an Emmy Award and Tony Award winner.
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). ForPaper 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 ofOn 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 ofThe Sisters Rosensweig. Her other films included The Cheap Detective(1978), City Heat (1983), Clue (1985) and Nixon (1995).
Kahn 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 toHofstra 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.
When 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.1960s
Kahn 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 joinActors' 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 Broadwayin the musical Promenade.1970s
She appeared in two Broadway musicals in the 1970s: a featured role in Richard Rodgers' 1970 Noah's Ark-themed showTwo 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 Casablancaand The Maltese Falcon, directed by Robert Moore.1980s
Kahn'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.1990s
Late 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 death
Kahn 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.
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