Madeline Kahn

Madeline Kahn
Madeline Kahn publicity.jpg
Kahn in 1983
Madeline Gail Wolfson

(1942-09-29)September 29, 1942
DiedDecember 3, 1999(1999-12-03) (aged 57)
OccupationActress, singer, comedian, voice over artist
Years active1964–1999
John Hansbury (m. 1999)

Madeline Gail Kahn (born Madeline Gail Wolfson; September 29, 1942 – December 3, 1999) was an American actress, comedian, voice actress, and singer, known for comedic roles in films directed by Peter Bogdanovich and Mel Brooks, including What's Up, Doc? (1972), Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977), History of the World, Part I (1981), and her Academy Award–nominated roles in Paper Moon (1973) and Blazing Saddles (1974).

Kahn made her Broadway debut in Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968, and received Tony Award nominations for the play In the Boom Boom Room in 1974 and for the original production of the musical On the Twentieth Century in 1978. She starred as Madeline Wayne on the short-lived ABC sitcom Oh Madeline (1983–84) and won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1987 for an ABC Afterschool Special. She received a third Tony Award nomination for the revival of the play Born Yesterday in 1989, before winning the 1993 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for the comedy The Sisters Rosensweig. Her other film appearances included The Cheap Detective (1978), City Heat (1984), Clue (1985), and Nixon (1995).

Early life and education

Kahn was born on September 29, 1942, in Boston, the daughter of Bernard B. Wolfson, a garment manufacturer, and his wife, Freda (née Goldberg).[1][2] She was raised in a nonobservant Jewish family.[3] Her parents divorced when Kahn was two, and she moved with her mother to New York City. In 1953, Freda married Hiller Kahn, who later adopted Madeline; Freda eventually changed her own name to Paula Kahn.[2] Madeline Kahn had two half-siblings: Jeffrey (from her mother's marriage to Kahn) and Robyn (from Bernard Wolfson's second marriage).[4]

In 1948, Kahn was sent to the progressive Manumit boarding school in Bristol, Pennsylvania. During that time, her mother pursued her acting dream. Kahn soon began acting herself, and performed in a number of school productions.[5] In 1960, she graduated from Martin Van Buren High School[6] in Queens, and then earned a drama scholarship to Hofstra University on Long Island. At Hofstra, she studied drama, music, and speech therapy. Kahn graduated from Hofstra in 1964 with a degree in speech therapy.[5] She was a member of a local sorority on campus, Delta Chi Delta.[citation needed] She later studied singing in New York City with Beverley Peck Johnson.[7]


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." To earn money while a college student, Kahn was a singing waitress at a Bavarian restaurant called Bavarian Manor, a Hofbräuhaus in New York's Hudson Valley. She sang musical comedy numbers during shows.[8]

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[9]—at the time that's what it was called.[10] 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.[8]


Kahn began auditioning for professional acting roles shortly after her graduation from Hofstra; on the side, she briefly taught public school.[5] 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,[11] 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,[12] as was her role as Miss Whipple in the original production of Promises, Promises.

She made her Broadway debut in 1969 with Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968.[13] 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.[5] In 1969, she appeared Off-Broadway in the musical Promenade.[14]

1970s and 1980s

She appeared in two Broadway musicals in the 1970s: a featured role in Richard Rodgers' 1970 Noah's Ark-themed show Two by Two[11] (singing a high C)[5] and a leading lady turn as Lily Garland in 1978's On the Twentieth Century.[11] She left (or, reportedly, was fired from) the latter show early in its run, yielding the role to her understudy, Judy Kaye.[15][16] She starred in a 1977 Town Hall semi-staged concert version of She Loves Me (opposite Barry Bostwick and original London cast member Rita Moreno).[5][17]

Kahn's film debut was in the 1968 short De Düva (The Dove). Her feature debut was as Ryan O'Neal's character's hysterical fiancée in Peter Bogdanovich's screwball comedy What's Up, Doc? (1972) starring Barbra Streisand.[18] Her film career continued with Paper Moon (1973), for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.[11]

Kahn was cast in the role of Agnes Gooch in the 1974 film Mame, but star Lucille Ball fired Kahn due to artistic differences. (Several of Ball's biographies say 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 was fired.[19])

A close succession of comedies — Blazing Saddles (1974), Young Frankenstein (1974), and High Anxiety (1977) — were all directed by Mel Brooks,[11] who was able to bring out the best of Kahn's comic talents.[20] 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.[11] In the April 2006 issue of Premiere magazine, her performance as Lili von Schtüpp in Saddles was selected as number 74 on its list of the 100 greatest performances of all time.[21]

In 1975, Kahn again teamed with Bogdanovich to co-star with Burt Reynolds and Cybill Shepherd in the musical At Long Last Love. The film was a critical and financial disaster, but Kahn largely escaped blame for the film's failure. Also in 1975, she teamed again with Gene Wilder for his comedy The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. In 1978, Kahn's comic screen persona reached another peak with Neil Simon's The Cheap Detective (1978),[11] 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: 1973's In the Boom Boom Room on Broadway[22] and 1977's Marco Polo Sings a Solo Off-Broadway.[23]

After her success in Brooks' films, she played in a number of less successful films in the 1980s. She played Mrs. White in 1985's Clue.[24] Other roles included a cameo in 1979's The Muppet Movie,[25] First Lady Mrs. Link in the 1980 spoof First Family, a twin from outer space in the Jerry Lewis sci-fi comedy Slapstick of Another Kind (1982), the love interest of Burt Reynolds in the crime comedy City Heat (1984), Draggle in the animated film My Little Pony: The Movie (1986) and the holiday farce Mixed Nuts (1994). She voiced the character Gussie Mausheimer in the animated film An American Tail. According to animator Don Bluth, she was cast because he was "hoping she would use a voice similar to the one she used as a character in Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles." [26]

In 1983, she starred in her own short-lived TV sitcom, Oh Madeline,[5] which ended after 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. [27] In 1987, Kahn won a Daytime Emmy award for her performance in the ABC Afterschool Special Wanted: The Perfect Guy.[5]

Kahn returned to the stage in the Judy Holliday role in the 1989 Broadway revival of Born Yesterday, and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play.[28]


Later in her career, she played Dr. Gorgeous in Wendy Wasserstein's 1993 play (on Broadway), The Sisters Rosensweig, a role which earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. [29]

Kahn played Molly Ringwald's mother in the 1990 film Betsy's Wedding.[30] Kahn played the corrupt mayor in a benefit concert performance of Anyone Can Whistle in 1995.[31] She appeared in Nixon as Martha Beall Mitchell (1995).[32]

She participated in a workshop reading of Dear World at the Roundabout Theatre Company in June 1998, reading the part of Gabrielle.[33] In the early 1990s, Kahn recorded a voice for the animated movie The Magic 7.[34] Her most notable role at that time was on the sitcom Cosby (1996–1999) as Pauline, the eccentric friend.[5] She also voiced Gypsy the moth in A Bug's Life (1998).[35]

Kahn received good reviews for her Chekhovian turn in the 1999 independent movie Judy Berlin, her final film.[36] For example, the AllMovie reviewer wrote: "...in her final film role, Madeline Kahn lends the proceedings a funny, infectious sense of wonder as David's loopy mom."[37]

Illness and death

Kahn developed ovarian cancer in 1998. She underwent treatment, continued to work on Cosby, and married John Hansbury in October 1999.[38] She also worked on the first two episodes of Little Bill, voicing Mrs. Shapiro. However, the disease spread rapidly, and she died on December 3, 1999, at age 57.[39] She was cremated[40] on December 6, 1999, at Garden State Crematory in North Bergen, New Jersey. A bench dedicated to her memory was erected in Central Park by her husband, John Hansbury, and her brother, Jeffrey Kahn. The bench is located near the reservoir on W 87th St. The second episode ("Just a Baby" / "The Camp Out") was the final episode for which she voiced Mrs. Shapiro and was dedicated to her memory. Kathy Najimy succeeded the role of Mrs. Shapiro following Kahn's death.



Title Year Roles Notes
De Düva (The Dove) 1968 Sigrid Short film
What's Up, Doc? 1972 Eunice Burns
Paper Moon 1973 Trixie Delight
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler 1973 Schoolteacher
Blazing Saddles 1974 Lili Von Shtupp
Young Frankenstein 1974 Elizabeth Benning
At Long Last Love 1975 Kitty O'Kelly
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother 1975 Jenny Hill
Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood 1976 Estie Del Ruth
High Anxiety 1977 Victoria Brisbane
The Cheap Detective 1978 Mrs. Montenegro
The Muppet Movie 1979 El Sleezo Patron
Simon 1980 Dr. Cynthia Mallory
Happy Birthday, Gemini 1980 Bunny Weinberger
Wholly Moses! 1980 The Witch
First Family 1980 Mrs. Constance Link
History of the World, Part I 1981 Empress Nympho
Slapstick of Another Kind 1982 Eliza Swain / Lutetia Swain
Yellowbeard 1983 Betty
Scrambled Feet 1983
City Heat 1984 Caroline Howley
Clue 1985 Mrs. White
My Little Pony: The Movie 1986 Draggle Voice
An American Tail 1986 Gussie Mausheimer Voice
Betsy's Wedding 1990 Lola Hopper
Mixed Nuts 1994 Mrs. Munchnik
Nixon 1995 Martha Mitchell
A Bug's Life 1998 Gypsy Voice
Judy Berlin 1999 Alice Gold
Sources: Masterworks,[5] TCM,[11] The New York Times[41]


Production Year Notes
Kiss Me, Kate 1965
Just for Openers (Upstairs at the Downstairs)[42] 1965
Mixed Doubles (Upstairs at the Downstairs)[43] 1966
Below the Belt 1966
How Now, Dow Jones 1967 Replaced by Brenda Vaccaro prior to opening
Candide 1968
Leonard Sillman's New Faces of 1968 1968
Promenade 1969
Two by Two 1970
In the Boom Boom Room 1973
She Loves Me 1977
On the Twentieth Century 1978
Born Yesterday 1989
Hello, Dolly! 1992 Tour[44]
The Sisters Rosensweig 1993
Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall 1992 Concert at Carnegie Hall[45]
Anyone Can Whistle 1995
Dear World 1998 Workshop[46]
Sources: PlaybillVault,[47] Masterworks,[5] TCM,[11] Lortel,[48] BroadwayWorld[49]


Show Year Notes
Harvey 1972
The Carol Burnett Show 1975 Mavis Danton
Saturday Night Live 1976, 1977 and 1995 Hosted three episodes
The Muppet Show 1977 Episode 209[50]
Sesame Street 1978 Episodes 1112 and 1186
Fridays 1981 Episode 35
Sesame Street 1981 Episode 1576
Oh Madeline 1983–1984
Comedy Factory CTV (1985–86) 1986 Season 2, Episode 6: Chameleon
Mr. President 1987–1988
The Magic 7 1990 Voice (unreleased)
Road to Avonlea 1991 Episode 211
Dr. Seuss's Sleep Book 1992
Monkey House [51][52] 1993 canceled after 7 episodes
Lucky Luke[53] 1992 canceled after 8 episodes
For Richer, for Poorer 1992
Sesame Street 1993 Episode 3136
New York News 1995 canceled after 13 episodes
London Suite[54] 1996
For Love Alone 1996
Cosby 1996–1999 Pauline Fox (final appearance)
Little Bill 1999 Mrs. Shapiro (Ep.: "Just a Baby/The Campout"; the episode is dedicated to her memory)
Sources: Masterworks,[5] TCM,[11] The New York Times[41] TV Guide[55]

Awards and nominations

  • Year given is year of ceremony
Year Work Award Result Ref
1973 What's Up, Doc? Golden Globe Award for New Star Actress of the Year Nominated [56]
1974 Paper Moon Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Nominated [56]
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Nominated [57]
In the Boom Boom Room Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance Won
Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play Nominated
1975 Young Frankenstein Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture Nominated [56]
Blazing Saddles Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress Nominated [57]
1978 On the Twentieth Century Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical Nominated
1984 Oh Madeline Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Television Series Musical or Comedy Nominated [56]
People's Choice Award for Favorite Female Performer in a New TV Series Won
1987 ABC Afterschool Special Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Performer in Children's Programming Won
1989 Born Yesterday Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical Nominated
1993 The Sisters Rosensweig Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Featured Actress in a Play Won
Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play Won
Honorary awards
2003 American Theatre Hall of Fame Inductee [58]


  1. ^ "Madeline Kahn". Jwa.org. Archived from the original on March 25, 2013. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  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. ^ Biography tvguide.com, accessed February 16, 2015
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l "Kahn Biography" masterworksbroadway.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  6. ^ "1960 Martin Van Buren Yearbook". classmates.com. Retrieved August 19, 2014.
  7. ^ Anthony Tommasini (January 22, 2001). "Beverley Peck Johnson, 96, Voice Teacher". The New York Times.
  8. ^ a b Madeline Kahn on her opera career on YouTube (video clip)
  9. ^ Online programme Candide Nov 10, 1968 [1] retrieved Oct 17,2013
  10. ^ audio clip Philharmonic Hall performance, Nov 1968 Video on YouTube retrieved Oct 17,2013
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Kahn Milestones" tcm.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  12. ^ Mandelbaum, Ken. Not Since Carrie August 15, 1992, Macmillan,ISBN 1466843276, p. 201
  13. ^ New Faces Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  14. ^ Promenade Production Archived February 13, 2015, at the Wayback Machine lortel.org, accessed February 13, 2015
  15. ^ The New York Times, April 25, 1978, p. 46
  16. ^ Corry, John. "Broadway; Terrence McNally has a comedy about stage due in fall", The New York Times, May 5, 1978, p. C2
  17. ^ Madison, William V. She Loves Me Madeline Kahn: Being the Music, A Life, (books.google.com), Univ. Press of Mississippi, 2015, ISBN 1617037621
  18. ^ " What's Up, Doc? Production" tcm.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  19. ^ "An interview with Madeline Kahn". Charlie Rose. Archived from the original on May 24, 2012. Retrieved May 4, 2012.
  20. ^ "Kahn Biography" tcm.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  21. ^ "The 100 Greatest Performances of All Time". Premiere Magazine. March 27, 2006.
  22. ^ In the Boom Boom Room Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  23. ^ Marco Polo Sings a Solo Production Archived February 13, 2015, at the Wayback Machine lortel.org, accessed February 13, 2015
  24. ^ Maslin, Janet. "Review, 'Clue' " The New York Times, December 13, 1985
  25. ^ "The Muppet Movie (1979)". Henson.com. Archived from the original on September 24, 2015. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  26. ^ "Don Bluth American Tail". Cataroo.com. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  27. ^ Terrace, Vincent. Chamelon Encyclopedia of Television Shows, 1925 through 2010, 2d ed., McFarland, 2008, ISBN 0786486414, p. 175
  28. ^ Born Yesterday Production playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  29. ^ "Madeline Kahn, Credits and Awards" playbillvault.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  30. ^ "Betsy's Wedding Cast and Crew" tcm.com, accessed March 28, 2015
  31. ^ " "Anyone Can Whistle' Concert, 1995" sondheimguide.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  32. ^ Nixon Cast nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  33. ^ " Dear World Reading" roundabouttheatre.org, accessed February 14, 2015
  34. ^ " The Magic 7 Cast and Crew" tcm.com, accessed March 28, 2015
  35. ^ A Bug's Life Cast nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  36. ^ Holden, Stephen. Judy Berlin Overview nytimes.com, accessed February 13, 2015
  37. ^ Hastings, Michael. " Judy BerlinReview" allmovie.com, accessed March 28, 2015
  38. ^ Variety, p. 7, December 6, 1999.
  39. ^ Honan, William H. (December 4, 1999). "Madeline Kahn, Comedian Of Film Fame, Dies at 57". The New York Times. Retrieved May 14, 2010.
  40. ^ Scott Wilson (August 19, 2016). Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed. McFarland. pp. 390–. ISBN 978-1-4766-2599-7.
  41. ^ a b "Kahn Filmography and Biography" The New York Times, accessed February 14, 2015
  42. ^ "Lortel Archives-The Internet Off-Broadway Database". Lortel.org. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  43. ^ "Lortel Archives-The Internet Off-Broadway Database". Lortel.org. Archived from the original on July 13, 2015. Retrieved July 12, 2015.
  44. ^ "Hello, Dolly!, Tour" ovrtur.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  45. ^ "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall" sondheimguide.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  46. ^ " Dear World 1998 Workshop Cast" broadwayworld.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  47. ^ "Kahn Broadway List" playbillvault.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  48. ^ "Kahn Off-Broadway List" Archived February 14, 2015, at the Wayback Machine lortel.org, accessed February 14, 2015
  49. ^ "Kahn Theatre Credits" broadwayworld.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  50. ^ Garlen, Jennifer C.; Graham, Anissa M. (2009). Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets. McFarland & Company. p. 218. ISBN 078644259X.
  51. ^ Goudas, John N. A Look Inside Vonnegut's 'Monkey House'" LA Times, February 21, 1993
  52. ^ Monkey House Cast and Episodes" imdb.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  53. ^ " Lucky Luke Cast" imdb.com, accessed February 14, 2015
  54. ^ Koehler, Robert. "NBC Puts 'London Suite' Through a 'Seinfeld' Filter" LA Times, September 14, 1996
  55. ^ "Kahn Credits" tvguide.com, accessed February 16, 215
  56. ^ a b c d Kahn list hfpa.org, accessed February 15, 2015
  57. ^ a b Kahn listing[permanent dead link] awardsdatabase.oscars.org, accessed February 15, 2015
  58. ^ "Theater honors put women in the spotlight". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved February 12, 2014.

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