Young'uns have no idea who Ann Jillian was, or that she is!
Born as Ann Nauseda on January 29, 1950, Jillian got her start as a child actor who popped up on episodic TV, including Leave It to Beaver (1960) and Shirley Temple's Storybook (1960) before making significant impressions in films as Bo Peep in Babes in Toyland (1961) — it was Walt Disney (1901-1966) who gave her her stage name — and as Dainty June in Gypsy (1962).
She still has fond memories of the latter, saying in 2015 of star Rosalind Russell (1907-1976), "Regal. The word that I would say is regal. She didn't speak with the children, but the, she didn't also push them away ... I was 10 years old, 11 years old when I started that ... She told you secrets of the trade in front of the camera, and I learned everything on the job, really."
By starting her career as a kid in the '60s, Jillian had a unique position in the industry that exposed her the greats of the past even as she was on her own rise to fame.
Among other career highlights in her early years, Jillian also appeared in the memorable Twilight Zone episode "Mute" (1963) as its star, and — as a teen — was a regular on the final season of Hazel (1965-1966).
Jillian continued making appearances on TV as she grew up, also doing voice work for such shows as Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (1977-1980), but also stepped away from the business (at least in front of the camera) during what she remembers as her awkward teen years.
It was her work onstage that probably led her to the heights she would achive in the '80s, in particular her work in the original production of Sugar Babies on Broadway in 1979 with Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) and Ann Miller (1923-2004), which catapulted her to the fore as it showed off her grown-up beauty and her versatility as a performer.
Her breakthrough year was 1980, when she landed a glitzy role on a two-part episode of the ratings smash Love Boat and shot the pilot for It's a Living, a snappy, post-sexual revolution look at a band of waitresses. As C Cassie Cranston, Jillian was transformed into a brassy sex symbol, and became instantly identified with her platinum 'do. It was like Jean Harlow (1911-1937) was brought back to life and put to work in a bar.
It's a Living made Jillian a household name, but she left after 1982 to pursue other opportunities, which included a string of TV movies and miniseries, most prominently Mae West (1982), for which she was Emmy-nominated as the greatest sex symbol of all time, who had just died at 87 less than two years earlier.
She made a strong impression in the soap-operatic Malibu (1983), which featured every star in the book — Kim Novak (b. 1933), Eva Marie Saint (b. 1924), George Hamilton (b. 1939), to name a few — and the sensational Girls of the White Orchid (1983), about human trafficking.
She also scored one of her rare feature-film roles as an adult, a winning supporting spot in Mr. Mom (1983), a huge hit.
Following the short-lived sitcom Jennifer Slept Here, in which she played the ghost of a long-dead sex kitten, she secured a second Emmy nomination for her role in the highly regarded miniseries Ellis Island (1984).
Continuing to soar, Jillian played the Red Queen opposite White Queen Carol Channing (1921-2019) in the hit TV adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (1985) and was called back (her contract required it) to It's a Living, which had been so successful in syndication its producers decided to shoot new episodes (1985-1986).
At the peak of her career and her status as a sex symbol, Jillian announced in 1985 that she had breast cancer, helping to demystify the disease while speaking about undergoing a double mastectomy. The battle seemed to shift her priorities; while she continued to work, she also drifted toward spending more time with her family (including her son, Andrew Joseph, b. 1992) and toward an eventual role as a motivational speaker.
Jillian's life had been touched by the disease previously — she lost her co-manager, Joyce Selznick, to the disease in 1981; thereafter, her husband since 1978, Andy Murcia, managed her career.
In 1986, Jillian made one of her most fondly remembered TV movies, Killer in the Mirror, which gave her the opportunity to play twins in a pastiche of the Bette Davis (1908-1989) movies A Stolen Life (1946) and Dead Ringer (1964). In 2015, Jillian recalled bumping into Davis backstage at an event: "I'm busy doing my eyes and all of a sudden I see this little head come in, and she goes, she looks and she says, 'Oh. It's you.' I don't know what that mean! But anyway, I was all aghast and I got somebody to take a picture of us."
Perhaps her proudest achievement was playing herself in The Ann Jillian Story (1988), which covered her cancer ordeal and earned her her third Emmy nomination and won her a Golden Globe.
A final attempt at a series, Ann Jillian (1989-1990), last 13 episodes.
Throughout the '90s, Jillian made TV movies, most often dramatic, often family-oriented — to use the old phrase, real "women's pictures" — at a pace or two a year until 1997. She made a 1999 appearance on Touched by an Angel and in 2000 appeared on Walker, Texas Ranger but has not been on TV or in a movie since ... almost 20 years!
Since her time away, Jillian has continued to make appearances and to sing, and is particularly proud to promote her Lithuanian heritage.
For kids of the '80s, I've never met one who didn't love her to death.
Wasn’t she in Out of This World?
Always loved Ann Jillian throughout her long career, remember Sugar Babies very fondly, and would very much like to see the Mae West movie again. I enjoyed seeing Ann again in the clips, looking wonderful with Ruta Lee, who never changes! Thanks, Matt.
I Loved this interview with Ruta Lee & Ann Jillian. I met Ann Jillian years ago at a Special Olympics baseball game she was the nicest most down to earth person I’d ever met. I loved all her shows and her singing. She’s a beautiful person inside and out!
Just watched Ann’s story on late night TV. What an inspiring story of someone who worked through her fears alongside her wonderful supportive husband along with her parents. Always loved Ann, but while I knew of her battle, I never saw her story. This was such a beautifully done movie. Bless you Ann and Tony.