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Molly Shannon Reveals the Tragic Story Behind This Classic "SNL" Character

Her most famous—and most hopeful—character was influenced by her greatest loss.

Comedic actor Molly Shannon faced an unthinkable tragedy at a young age, and it ended up inspiring one of her most famous characters. In a new interview with the Los Angeles Times, Shannon opened up about losing her mother, sister, and cousin in a car accident when she was only four years old. Of course, going through such a huge loss shaped her life in many ways, and as a comedian, the tragedy influenced some of her work. In the interview, Shannon revealed that a classic Saturday Night Live character was born out of how she coped as a young girl after the accident that took away her family members. Read on to learn more.

Shannon's life was turned upside down when she was just a child.

Molly Shannon at a "Glee" event in 2010
s_bukley /

When Shannon was four years old, her mother, younger sister Katie, and cousin were killed in a car accident. Her father was the driver and had been under the influence. He survived but was badly injured. While her dad was healing, Shannon and her other sister, Mary, had to go live with their aunt.

"The life that we left was not the same life we were coming back into," she explained to the LA Times. It just felt like everything was different. And I wanted my aunt to do stuff like my mom. I was like, 'No, my mom cuts the crust like that.' Everything made me mad."

The White Lotus actor added that it was hard to continue on without always thinking about her sister. "We would learn to do fun stuff, like tie our shoes, and I felt like, 'Katie, my little sister, should be here learning. She would have loved this. Katie would have loved doing the rabbits and tying her shoe.'"

She ended up channeling some of those feelings into her most famous character.

Molly Shannon as Mary Katherine Gallagher on "Saturday Night Live"
Saturday Night Live / YouTube

Shannon was a cast member on SNL for seven seasons. Her most recognizable character from her time on the show is Mary Katherine Gallagher, a Catholic school student who believed herself to be a fantastic entertainer, but is actually socially awkward and extremely clumsy. Shannon also starred as the character in the feature film spinoff, Superstar.

In the LA Times interview, Shannon shared that the character she created "was really based on me, how I felt after the accident—really nervous, accident-prone, wanting to please, f***ed up but full of hope. I just exaggerated everything I felt as a little girl and turned it into a character."

RELATED: Tina Fey Says This Celebrity Guest Was a "Disaster" On SNL.

She recognizes that the pain of the loss didn't just go away.

Molly Shannon at the 2020 Critics Choice Awards
Silvia Elizabeth Pangaro /

"I was very heartbroken and very sad and just trying to hold it all together as a kid," Shannon told the LA Times. "There's no way that you could feel that type of deep pain about your mother and your sister being dead, so you just hold it all in, and it comes up later in life."

She explained that she thinks the experience affected how much she—quite literally—threw herself into her characters. As Mary Katherine Gallagher, she often performed stunts, such as crashing into a bunch of chairs. "I didn't care if I cut myself or I made myself bleed," Shannon said of her time playing the character. "I did not give a s***. I looked at it like punk rock. I was reckless, and because of what I went through, I just didn't care about anything."

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What she experienced has made her very grateful for her life.

Molly Shannon and daughter Stella at the premiere of "Hotel Transylvania 3" in 2018
Featureflash Photo Agency /

Shannon has two teenage children, Stella and Nolan, with her husband, artist Fritz Chesnut. "I look at life differently, losing my mom, and living beyond years that she ever got to live. And I feel gratitude," Shannon told the LA Times.

In a July interview with People, while talking about her upcoming memoir Hello, Molly! (out April 2022), Shannon explained that she thinks about how she gets to have more time with her children than her mother did. "I think any amount of time you have on earth with somebody is a good amount of time," she said. "Every day of my life, I think, 'Oh my God. I'm alive. She never got to do this. I get to do it and I get to see my daughter apply to colleges this year.' I'm seeing them as teenagers now and getting to be their mother and outlive what my mother was able to do. It's profoundly healing, you know? It gives me gratitude."

RELATED: Maya Rudolph Says This SNL Host Made the Cast Want to Leave.

Lia Beck
Lia Beck is a writer living in Richmond, Virginia. In addition to Best Life, she has written for Refinery29, Bustle, Hello Giggles, InStyle, and more. Read more
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