BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Always effervescent singer-actress Ann Jillian is a bit Blu this holiday season.
Jillian’s first two films, Walt Disney’s classic Babes in Toyland ($20, Disney) and the musical Gypsy ($20 Warner Archive) co-starring Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood, have been released on Blu-ray in high definition.
“Babes in Toyland I started on my 11th birthday and Gypsy I started on my 12th birthday. I thought that every year I’d be starting movies on my birthday. Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way,” said Jillian, whose adult career as a TV sex symbol in the 1980s was derailed by her bout with breast cancer.
“As a woman, of course it was a blow,” Jillian says. “The great thing about it was that I valued myself as a woman from how I saw myself from inside.”
Born in 1950 to Roman Catholic Lithuanian immigrants, Jillian got started early on stage. In 1961, she audition for and won the plum role of Little Bo Peep in Babes in Toyland, co-starring Annette Funicello, Tommy Sands and Ray Bolger. The next year producer-director Mervyn LeRoy cast her as “Dainty” June Havoc, younger sister of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee in the film version of Gypsy, which cast Wood in the tile role and Russell as the ferocious stage mother, Rose.
Jillian makes clear her real-life mother wasn’t a monster.
“She was not Mama Rose. Mama Rose was more intense. My mother had the same dreams for me. Obviously they didn’t go in the same direction as Mama Rose,” Jillian said. “She instilled a lot of good values that did well for me as I grew older.”
Jillian reveals that her mom, Margaret Nauseda, also had breast cancer.
“I watched how she dealt with it: in a very quiet, dignified manner. She got that from her faith,” Jillian said. “She helped me long before she had to help me. She was the person who carried the flag for me. I learned how to live through something like this from her.”
As she matured, Jillian began working less in films and more on stage. She performed a nightclub act and appeared on Broadway with Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in Sugar Babies. During a stop in Chicago, she met police sergeant Andy Murcia, then 37 and originally of North Miami.
“I was the torch singer in Sammy Cahn's Words & Music,” Jillian said. “I met him because he was doing security at the Ambassador East hotel where I was staying. Because of the make-up I had on, he thought I was a hooker.” They married in 1977 and Murcia became her manager.
In 1980, Jillian became a nationally known star in the TV sitcom, It’s a Living. Two years later, she played the tile role in a made-for-TV bio, Mae West, which won her Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Another Emmy nomination came in 1984 for the TV miniseries Ellis Island.
The next year, Jillian, 35, announced she had breast cancer and would undergo a double mastectomy.
“I often refer to it as a major inconvenience,” she says. “It didn’t kill me off, and it didn’t kill my spirit. I didn’t get mad at anybody. I got mad at the cancer and fought it off. And here we are.”
In 1988, Jillian took the toughest role of her career, playing herself in a TV movie, The Ann Jillian Story. She got a third Emmy nomination, won a Golden Globe and the film was one of the highest-rated of the year.
Four years later, Jillian and Murcia became parents to son Andrew, now a 20-year-old college student.
Raising Andrew, Jillian put show business on the back burner and she became a motivational speaker for breast cancer issues.
“I never did turn my back on the breast cancer movement. So many other women have also been initiated into the dog-gone sisterhood. I’m still here. I thank the good Lord above and my doctors. I think it’s important to tell the story and tell how one woman got through it. There are legions of us.”