Ann Jillian Remembers 'Gypsy'

12.22.2012

By Jeremy Kinser

The actress shares memories of playing June in the 1962 film musical alongside Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell.

Television viewers of a certain age not only remember Ann Jillian, but likely have a continued fondness for the once-ubiquitous actress, who memorably played brassy cocktail waitress Cassie in the early ‘80s sitcom It’s A Living. Before stepping out of the spotlight to raise her son and care for her elderly parents, Jillian parlayed her popularity into a string of notable roles in movies such as Mr. Mom, playing Mae West in a TV bio, and even winning a Golden Globe for portraying herself in The Ann Jillian Story, which detailed her widely-publicized battle with breast cancer. Prior to all this television glory, Jillian played Dainty June in 1962 film adaptation of the revered backstage musical Gypsy  (just released on an exquisitely-remastered Blu-ray edition). 

Jillian was 12-years-old when she landed the coveted part of June and acted alongside show business vets Natalie Wood (pictured, in the title role), Karl Malden, and Rosalind Russell, a controversial casting choice as Mama Rose, the notorious stage mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, over Ethel Merman, who originated the career-crowning character on Broadway. Jillian, who is now an in-demand motivational speaker, tells Out about her experience working on the film and shares memories of movie legends Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood. 

Out: Have you watched Gypsy recently? I wonder how you think it holds up.
Ann Jillian: I watched it last week. I think it holds up. There’s the charm because it is stylized. Director and producer Mervyn LeRoy had this vision of the movie that started as a play then expanded with the location and transition scenes. He wanted it to be bigger than life.

Had you seen the Broadway production before you were cast?
I did. My mother took me to see Gypsy in downtown Los Angeles. Ethel Merman had come to town and was playing Mama Rose. I don’t know whether my mother had heard they were casting Gypsy or if it was just serendipitous and a coincidence. But whatever it was, it was my introduction to musical comedy in a big way. It is the quintessential Broadway musical. Seeing Ethel Merman on the stage was wonderful. She was a force to be reckoned with.

How did you come to play June in Gypsy? I understand you replaced the actress who was originally cast.
I had 13 auditions for it. For a girl who wasn’t quite 12-years-old there was a lot of pressure for me to get it. I went every single time and then they chose someone else. After a week or two we got a phone call saying it didn’t work out with the other girl. I got it and the rest is history. I don’t recall who the young lady was but I understand she went on to have a career and that’s wonderful. I’m glad to say Gypsy is on my resume.

Tags: Movies
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