Molly Shannon’s Saturday Night Live character Mary Katherine Gallagher, who loved to smell her own armpits and called herself “Superstar!”, made people laugh out loud.
But behind the funny act was grief that the star still felt decades after a terrible car accident killed her mother and baby sister.
This week’s issue of PEOPLE has an exclusive excerpt from Shannon’s new book, Hello, Molly!, in which she talks about those haunting first days after the crash and how she and her widowed, alcoholic father got through them.
“Mary Katherine Gallagher and I have a lot in common. I’m a survivor,” The Other Two-star, who is 57, wrote Hello, Molly!, which will come out on April 12 from Ecco.
Shannon was only 4 years old when her mother, 3-year-old sister Katie, and cousin Fran died on a June night in 1969. Her dad, who had been drinking all day, was driving the family home from a party when he hit a car on the highway and then swerved into a steel light pole.
Shannon, her dad, and her 6-year-old sister Mary all made it through, but they had physical and emotional scars for years.
“The car was badly damaged when it hit. A man who was nearby stopped. My mother was lying on the ground next to our car and asked him, “Where are my girls?” Shannon talks about the accident in her book Hello, Molly! “She wanted to get her three young daughters together, but she couldn’t. At that moment, her heart must have broken. And that was the last thing she said.
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“My little sister Katie and my cousin Fran died right away,” Shannon says. “Since Mary and I were in the very back of the station waggon, we just got a concussion and a broken arm, respectively. Katie was dead when the plane crashed.
In the excerpt, Shannon talks about how scary the next few days were. She remembered getting up from her hospital bed and getting dressed so she could go see her mom and sister. A family member told her that they were both in heaven and that she couldn’t go see them. The actress writes, “I didn’t know what death was.” “All I could think was, ‘Why did Mommy and Katie go without me? Maybe I’m bad.’ “
In the accident, Shannon’s father was hurt badly and had to learn how to walk all over again. He struggled with guilt and the difficulty of being a single parent to two young girls.
Being raised by a father who lost his wife gave me a very different childhood. Shannon says in her book that there was “no pressure to act like a lady.”
Shannon says, “I wore whatever I wanted.” “When I had holes in my Keds, my dad told me, ‘Good, that shows you have character.'” When I became a performer, it gave me so much freedom.”
She also learned as she grew up that she liked to make people laugh. Shannon went to New York University in 1983 to study drama. To pay for school, she worked as a waitress. Shannon first put on the role of Mary Katherine Gallagher, a bad Catholic schoolgirl, during an improv audition in 1986, when she was still in college.
“I played the part of a very nervous person, which was an exaggerated version of how I felt,” she writes. The show was a hit with the audience. People in Shannon’s class started telling her that she should be on Saturday Night Live. At the time, Shannon was focusing on dramatic acting.
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When she first appeared on SNL in 1995, less than a decade later, Shannon did just that. She ended her sketch about Mary Katherine Gallagher with an unplanned final lunge and the word “Superstar!” Shannon wanted to make her friends laugh, but she didn’t know that she was doing something that would make her famous.
“Mary Katherine wants to be a star and be seen, and she wants her mom to come back from the dead,” writes Shannon, who says that despite her rising success as a comedian actress, she still felt an “ache” in her heart because she missed her mom.
“The main character is a survivor—an adult child of an alcoholic. A girl who falls over. But gets back up. It’s a character with feelings. “I wrote what I felt,” she says.
Shannon still misses her mom and sister, but the loss makes her love and appreciates being a mother even more. Stella, 18, and Nolan, 17, are Shannon’s children with her painter husband Fritz Chesnut, 49.
The star says in her book, “I don’t take any of it for granted.” What’s up, Molly? “I can’t relate to some of the things people complain about when it comes to being a parent. “They are alive!” is all I can think.
Shannon says she also felt a rush of gratitude when she got to say goodbye to her dad, Jim Shannon, who died in 2002 at age 72 after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. The year before, the actress and her dad had a good talk about his sexuality, and he came out as gay or bisexual, which he hadn’t been able to do before.
“In the hospital, I held his hands. “Being there with him as he died made me feel like a very special person,” she writes. “My mother had died so suddenly. I loved how things turned out with my dad. That I hadn’t been caught off guard so quickly. That I’d had time to say goodbye.”
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