One of Molly Shannon’s most popular “SNL” characters, hyperactive Catholic school girl Mary Catherine Gallagher, stems from Shannon’s childhood of loss.
When she was four years old, her mother, baby sister and cousin were killed in a car crash. Her father was at the wheel.
Shannon, who survived the accident, along with another sister and her dad, spoke with Anderson Cooper for his podcast “All There Is” about escaping into a fantasy world after the tragedy.
“I think because I was so little, it’s like there’s no way that you could really, like, fully accept that and understand [that loss],” she told Cooper. “So, I went into a fantasy waiting for her to come back for a long time. And I thought maybe when we went back to the house that we lived in before the accident, I thought maybe she would be around the corner.”
Shannon also became a bit of a confidant for her father, a man who in the 1970s found himself having to raise two daughters alone.
When she was 12 years old, her father would have her read over financial documents, something she told Cooper felt “empowering.”
“I mean, some people might say, oh, that’s so inappropriate. They shouldn’t do that to a child,” she said. “But the good part about it is it makes you feel like a little like king or queen, kind of, like you feel like, well, I’m really capable.”
“And he trusts me with these, like, adult kind of decisions,” she added. “So there is a boundarylessness to it. But then it was also made me feel great. Somebody once called it empowering abuse.”
Cooper can relate.
He was 10 years old when his father Wyatt died at the age of 50 while undergoing heart surgery, and he found himself becoming a bit of an adviser to his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.
“My mom would ask me for advice and I’d be like, Mom, he’s married. He’s not, he’s not going to marry you. Whatever he’s saying, he’s not telling you the truth,” he told Shannon. “I wanted her to give me financial documents because I was like, we’re on a sinking ship and I need to know exactly how much time we have because I got to earn some money.”
Both he and Shannon agreed that losing a parent at a young age caused them to become more focused on succeeding.
“I really was driven to achieve, to make it. I’d been running for a long time. Running, running, running, trying to make it as an actress in LA and do shows and audition,” she said. “And I really wanted to get on television and then I really wanted to be on ‘Saturday Night Live.’”
“And then finally I get an audition for SNL, and then finally I get cast and I’m on the show and then I got Mary Katherine Gallagher on and… but I felt really depressed because I was like, oh, I thought that this would fix everything,” she said. “And I felt like, no, there’s something missing. And it just felt like I really only wanted my mom. I was like, I just wanted her.”
“Part of my motivation of throwing myself into work is rage, like the rage of a child who’s lost a parent early on and just angry about that,” Cooper shared.
Shannon leaned into her relationship with her father and was there when he died at the age of 72 after a battle with cancer.
“I guess because my mom died so suddenly, having that time with my dad when he was dying and in the hospital was so deeply comforting,” she said.