The naturally gifted singer and actress wasted no time in breaking into show business; a move at age six from her Massachusetts birthplace to show biz mecca Los Angeles quickly resulted in small TV appearances and soon a nice juicy role in Walt Disney's big screen 1961 musical Babes in Toyland. A year later she landed the important role of Baby June in the lavish Mervyn LeRoy-directed screen version of the Broadway musical hit Gypsy, starring Natalie Wood in the title role and Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose. Two years ago Ann gave a terrific interview to Jeremy Kinser of Out.com about her experience working on the film; click here to read it. Here is a musical number from the film between Natalie Wood and Ann Jillian:
As a child and young teen Ann was a frequent guest on major TV series like Ben Casey, My Three Sons, Hazel and on an episode of Twilight Zone where she played the title role of "The Mute" -- you can watch the entire episode right here, right now! (For a cute anecdote from a former classmate of hers, check out comedy writer Ken Levine and his post "My short-lived fling with Ann Jillian", here.)
Ann continued her TV career with guest roles and voice-over work as she entered her late teens, too tall to play a kid anymore. After reassessing her skill set -- acting, singing, comedy -- she continued her stage work and also toured with nightclub headliners. An invitation to study with the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera honed her musical skills, and soon she was ready to take on Broadway. In 1979 she won a co-starring role opposite Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller in the smash stage hit Sugar Babies, an affectionate homage to burlesque and vaudeville. You can browse through the original Sugar Babies Playbill program -- fascinating stuff! Click here. For a really interesting and personal account of her life around this time, check out this article from People magazine, click here.
After her success in Sugar Babies and a marriage it was time for Ann to return to Hollywood. She did a few series like The Love Boat and in 1980 joined the cast of the new ABC sitcom It's a Living about a group of waitresses who work at a posh Los Angeles restaurant. Performers union strikes in Hollywood wreaked havoc on many shows debuting that season including It's a Living, but the series managed to return for a retooled 2nd season as Making a Living.. Ann Jillian was a stand-out in her role as the vivacious Cassie, acting alongside (variously) Susan Sullivan, Marian Mercer and Louise Lasser. It's a Living was cancelled after its 2nd season but ended up being a surprise hit a year or so later when it was revived by a successful syndication run (spearheaded by leading independent station KTLA in Los Angeles) leading to new once-a-week first-run production beginning in 1985. (More on that period in Ann's life a bit later.)
In 1980 she participated in several of the popular Battle of the Network Stars series of specials where actors and actresses appearing on the three major networks got together for staged competitions. It was a crazy concept and incredibly popular with audiences. Here is a Howard Cosell-narrated profile of Ann from one of the special:
And here Ann gets dunked in the Baseball Toss by actress Erin Gray:
But she gets her chance to get some payback on James Sikking:
Ann shows her prowess with a kayak paddle in this competition:
(There are lots more great Battle of the Network Stars clips on YouTube and if you look around the net the episodes are available on DVD, too.)
In 1982 Ann received good notices and an Emmy nomination for her portrayal of legendary classic screen star Mae West in the TV movie of the same name. (The nostalgia boom was still going on in a big way and TV was chock full of retro-Hollywood biographies. Check out this terrific post on Clements Valorie's wonderful entertainment-oriented blog for a great overview of the slew of TV movies that resulted, click here, You may get an AdFly page shift and warning but just hit your back button and go back to the post. It's worth it. Way back in 2007 I wrote three posts on TCM's Movie Morlocks blog on the subject, here, here and here.)
You can watch the whole movie (albeit in several parts) on YouTube, click here.
After a couple more TV movies (including Girls of the White Orchid, click here to watch) and a role in the 1983 big screen comedy Mr. Mom starring Michael Keaton, Ann was given her own situation comedy on NBC for the fall of 1983. Jennifer Slept Here -- a famous actress who's passed away returns to haunt the family who lives in her old house -- only lasted thirteen episodes but audiences definitely liked Jillian no matter what she was in.
In November of 1983 She appeared on the series Salute! to duet with singer Andy Gibb:
In 1983 Ann had a major role in the epic seven-hour miniseries Ellis Island about turn-of-the-20th-Century immigration to America, complete with all-star cast.
In 1984 she found time to host the Miss Hawaiian Tropic International pageant and give us a knockout song:
In 1985 Ann appeared as the Red Queen in an all-star over-the-top Irwin Allen-produced TV musical version of Alice in Wonderland. The cast has to be seen to be believed -- please click here for a complete list of big-name participants and take some time to explore the excellent What a Wonderful Dream Alice in Wonderland website and especially its section on this epic TV special.
It was during the production of Alice in Wonderland that Ann's life was shaken by a serious medical emergency. She was diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer and immediately underwent a double mastectomy. This August 1985 article from People is a riveting first-person account of that ordeal and well worth your time. Definitely click here to read it. Two weeks after the operation she was back on the set of Alice in Wonderland with the blessing of producer Irwin Allen. Ann Jillian is a trouper.
1985 brought the unexpected but welcome revitalization of It's a Living in the wake of the popular syndication run of the network episodes. Independent stations were feeling their oats and rising in strength against network affiliates, resulting in a increased opportunities for unprecedented first-run production. Proven properties were less of a gamble -- even a network cast-off often had more cachet than an original (The New Leave It to Beaver, What's Happening Now, anyone?) -- so It's a Living was able to reemerge as a hot property. Ann Jillian rose to top-billing for the new season but left the show after a year to concentrate on her health though it continued for a total of six seasons.
In 1988 Ann's own life story and specifically her cancer journey were brought to life in the TV movie The Ann Jillian Story co-starring Tony LoBianco as her husband Andy. For more information check out this detailed article from The New York Times, click here.
Ann won a Golden Globe for her work in the movie:
In 1989 Ann gave another try to having her own sitcom, this time the simply titled Ann Jillian where she played a recent widow who moves to a small town to put her life together again.
The show only lasted half a season but Ann continued to be incredibly busy starring in a selection of TV movies -- she made more than two dozen of them during her years as a major TV personality. Ann Jillian certainly belongs in that select group of actresses who wear the title "TV Movie Queens" -- ladies like Elizabeth Montgomery and Jane Seymour to name a couple -- who made that once extremely popular movie genre a backbone of TV programming. (Of course Lifetime now specializes in the form for a new generation of viewers.)
The most exciting Ann Jillian production of the early 1990s was the birth of her son, a later-in-life, post-cancer happy event that also changed her life and added motherhood to her impressive resume. People magazine had a nice article about the impending birth, click here to read.
Though her last TV acting role was on a Walker, Texas Ranger episode in 2000, Ann Jillian hasn't stopped being in front of the public and sharing her spirit and talent. As we mentioned at the outset of this article, Ann is a much sought-after speaker who shares her life story and message of strength with audiences all over the country. Music is very much a part of her appearances as this show business veteran continues to give it all she's got to entertain and inspire those around her.
For more information on her current projects we highly recommend visiting her official website by clicking here.
Ann Jillian has worked hard her whole life to excel as a human being and as a performer. Her natural charm and talent have been a gift to us all.
Happy Birthday to the delightful Ann Jillian!