Molly Shannon's Car Accident: Losing Mom and Sister at a Young Age Inspired the Comedian's SNL Character
Actress and comedian Molly Shannon suffered a tragic loss as a toddler, a trauma that followed her throughout her life.
Fans of Molly Shannon love her quirky humor, but what many may not realize is that the laugh-a-minute attitude is rooted in the pain of loss; what drives her comedic characters is the need to make sense of the senseless darkness of life.
The woman TV and movie audiences associate with laughter got acquainted with grief and loss at the age of four when a tragic accident robbed her of her mother, sister, and cousin --and left her father seriously injured.
Molly Shannon at the Los Angeles special screening of "Spin Me Round" in Beverly Hills in August, 2022. | Source: Getty Images
Molly Shannon was born on September 16, 1964, in Shaker Heights, Ohio. The middle child in a family with three daughters, she survived with her father and older sister Mary to the car accident that decimated her family.
With her father's encouragement, Shannon studied drama at the prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in New York City. After she graduated, she moved to Los Angeles and supported herself by working in a restaurant while trying to break into acting.
Shannon shared her complex bond with her father in her memoir and spoke lovingly and with forgiveness of his struggle with alcoholism.
She landed a supporting role in the 1989 remake of "The Phantom of the Opera," which led to minor guest roles in "Twin Peaks," "General Hospital," and "Sister, Sister."
Shannon's big break came in 1995 when she replaced Janeane Garofalo on the cast of "Saturday Night Live." The actress became a household name, and her career took off.
Alongside her TV work, Shannon has starred in over sixty movies, including "Never Been Kissed," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette," and "Other People," for which she won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Female.
In her memoir, "Hello Molly," published by Harper Collins in April 2022, the actress shares the joy, the laughter, and the tragedy that inspired her work and shaped her life --the loss of family and the struggle she and her father went through to overcome it.
Molly Shannon Lost Her mother, Little Sister, and Cousin in a Tragic Car Accident
Molly Shannon was only four years old when her father, mother, three-year-old sister Katie, and her cousin Fran were involved in a fatal car accident. Her father, who had been drinking, was driving.
Their father, Shannon, and her oldest sister Mary survived. She suffered a broken arm, and Mary had a concussion, but their mother, Katie, and Fran were killed. The experience was profoundly disturbing for the toddler, who lost most of her close family.
Laughter was how Shannon dealt with her four-year-old self, who knew that her mother and sister were never going to come home again and that the father she knew was profoundly changed.
Molly Shannon's Father Struggled with Guilt after the Accident
Even though her father, James Shannon, survived, he went through a prolonged and painful recovery and had to learn to walk again. He also struggled with feelings of guilt over the death of his wife and daughter. Shannon revealed:
"My dad was always very open [about the accident], but I think when stuff like that happens, it's like letting the water settle. You throw a coin in water. You have to wait for it to stop rippling and let the water settle."
Despite his problems with alcohol, Shannon's father raised his surviving daughters and encouraged Shannon in her ambition to be an actress and a comedian.
Molly Shannon's Loss Was the Inspiration behind Her 'SNL' Characters
Throughout the 116 episodes of "Saturday Night Live" between 1995 and 2001 in which Shannon participated, all her characters were hilariously funny but also complex.
Helen Madden, Sally O'Malley, and Mary Katherine Gallagher reflected the comedian's knowledge that life can turn on a dime; that laughter is the flip side of grief. She revealed:
"I'm a lot like Mary Katherine Gallagher. I'm a survivor."
There was a little bit of the heartbreak that Shannon went through in every character and some of the hard-earned resilience and courage.
The actress is happily married to artist Fritz Chesnut, with whom she shares a daughter Stella, born in 2003, and a son Nola born in 2005.
Shannon knows that the pie-in-the-face isn't just cream and pastry. What's to hit you may be dynamite and rip the rug from under your feet. So you have to grab that happiness and share that laughter here and now.
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