Madeline Kahn

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Madeline Kahn
Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue, 1985
BornMadeline Gail Wolfson
(1942-09-29)September 29, 1942
Boston, Massachusetts
DiedDecember 3, 1999(1999-12-03) (aged 57)
New York City, New York
Cause of death
Ovarian cancer
Occupationactress, singer, comedian
Years active1964–1999
Spouse(s)John Hansbury
(October–December 1999; her death)
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Madeline Kahn
Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue, 1985
BornMadeline Gail Wolfson
(1942-09-29)September 29, 1942
Boston, Massachusetts
DiedDecember 3, 1999(1999-12-03) (aged 57)
New York City, New York
Cause of death
Ovarian cancer
Occupationactress, singer, comedian
Years active1964–1999
Spouse(s)John Hansbury
(October–December 1999; her death)

Madeline Kahn (September 29, 1942 – December 3, 1999) was an American actress, comedienne and singer. A two-time Academy Award nominee, she also won an Emmy Award and a Tony Award.

Kahn made her Broadway debut in Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968. She received Tony Award nominations for the 1973 original Broadway production of Boom Boom Room and the 1978 revival of On the Twentieth Century. On screen, she became known for her comedic roles in films directed by Peter Bogdanovitch and Mel Brooks, including What's Up, Doc? (1972), Paper Moon (1973), Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) and History of the World, Part I (1981). 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, received a third Tony nomination for the 1989 revival of Born Yesterday, and won the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the 1993 original production of the comedy The Sisters Rosensweig. Her other films included The Cheap Detective (1978), City Heat (1983), Clue (1985) and Nixon (1995).

Early life[edit]

Kahn was born Madeline Gail Wolfson in Boston, the daughter of Bernard B. Wolfson, a garment manufacturer, and his wife, Freda (née Goldberg).[1][2] She was raised in a non-observant Jewish family.[3] 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; she eventually changed her name to Paula Kahn.[2] 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[4] 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.[citation needed]


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.[5]

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[6] - at the time that's what it was called.[7] 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.[5]


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 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.


She 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.[8])

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.[9] 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.


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 1985's 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.


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.[citation needed]

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[edit]

Kahn developed ovarian cancer in 1998. She underwent treatment and continued to work on Cosby and married John Hansbury in October 1999.[10] The disease spread rapidly, and she died on December 3, 1999.[11] 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
Paper Moon1973
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler1973
Blazing Saddles1974
Young Frankenstein1974
At Long Last Love1975
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother1975
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood1976
High Anxiety1977
The Cheap Detective1978
The Muppet Movie1979
First Family1980
Happy Birthday, Gemini1980
Wholly Moses!1980
History of the World, Part I1981
Slapstick of Another Kind1982
City Heat1984
My Little Pony: The Movie1986 (voice)
An American Tail1986 (voice)
Betsy's Wedding1990
Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book1992 (Narrator)
Mixed Nuts1994
A Bug's Life1998 (voice)
Judy Berlin1999
The Magic 72009 (voice - produced 1990-1993 - unreleased)


Kiss Me, Kate1965
Just for Openers1965
Mixed Doubles1966
Below the Belt1966
How Now, Dow Jones1967 (replaced by Brenda Vaccaro prior to opening)
Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 19681968
Two by Two1970
In the Boom Boom Room1973
She Loves Me1977
On the Twentieth Century1978
Born Yesterday1989
Hello, Dolly!1992
The Sisters Rosensweig1993
Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall1993
Anyone Can Whistle1995
Dear World1998 (workshop)


ShowYear / Episode
The Carol Burnett ShowGuest star: 1975
Saturday Night LiveThree episodes hosted: 1976, 1977 and 1995
The Muppet ShowEpisode 209 1977[12]
Sesame StreetEpisode 1112 1978
Sesame StreetEpisode 1576 1981
Oh Madeline1983
Comedy Factory CTV (1985–86)Season 2, Episode 6:Chameleon 1986
Mr. President1987–1988
Monkey House1991 (canceled after 7 episodes)
Road to AvonleaEpisode 211 1991
Lucky Luke1993(canceled after 8 episodes)
Sesame StreetEpisode 3136 1994
New York News1995 (canceled after 13 episodes)
London Suite1996
Cosbycast member 1996–1999
Little Bill1999, dedication

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award wins:

Award nominations:

In 2003, Madeline Kahn was posthumously inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame.[13]


  1. ^ JWA - Jewish Women in Comedy: Madeline Kahn
  2. ^ a b William V. Madison (June 13, 2012). "Billevesées: Progress Report 14: When Hiller Met Paula". Retrieved April 26, 2013. 
  3. ^ Specter, Michael (April 8, 1993). "AT HOME WITH: Madeline Kahn; Funny? Yes, but Someone's Got to Be". The New York Times. Retrieved May 12, 2010. 
  4. ^ "1960 Martin Van Buren Yearbook". Retrieved 19 August 2014. 
  5. ^ a b Madeline Kahn on her opera career on YouTube (video clip)
  6. ^ Online programme Candide Nov 10, 1968 [1] retrieved Oct 17,2013
  7. ^ audio clip Philharmonic Hall performance, Nov 1968 Video on YouTube retrieved Oct 17,2013
  8. ^ "An interview with Madeline Kahn". Charlie Rose. Retrieved 2012-05-04. 
  9. ^ "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time". Premiere Magazine. 2006-03-27. 
  10. ^ Variety, p. 7, December 6, 1999.
  11. ^ Honan, William H. (December 4, 1999). "Madeline Kahn, Comedian Of Film Fame, Dies at 57". The New York Times. Retrieved May 14, 2010. 
  12. ^ Garlen, Jennnifer C.; Graham, Anissa M. (2009). Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets. McFarland & Company. p. 218. ISBN 078644259X. 
  13. ^ "Theater honors put women in the spotlight". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved February 12, 2014. 

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