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.
Having seen the production and been called in to audition so many times you must have been aware that this was a really important project.
Definitely. I knew the buzz was incredible about it when I saw the show on stage. I knew the excitement about it was big and when you go in to audition 13 times you know it’s big. It evokes a need to excel.
Were you aware of any controversy at the time of Rosalind Russell being cast instead of Ethel Merman?
Only after the film came out. I didn’t know about it before. To me it was just natural. People are chosen to play roles. There wasn’t a question in my mind about why they were choosing Rosalind over Ethel. Having seen Ethel and working with Rosalind, I’d say they both brought to the role their own energy, their own talent, and their own perception of the woman. I think they were both valid. Ethel brought a very brassy, "get-out-of-my-way, I’m barreling through" quality. Rosalind did the same thing but also brought a regal quality and more layers to the character, but I think that’s because of the medium. When you’re watching something on stage you don’t see every flutter of the eye or every tremor of the lips. It’s bigger than life. In film every thing is magnified. Rosalind was very skilled at that. I think she did a beautiful job and gave the character more complexity.
How did you find working with Rosalind?
She was the consummate professional. I was 12 so we didn’t have reasons to have long discussions with one another but she was very cordial. She helped a lot whenever she could. Certainly Rosalind Russell, Karl Malden, and Natalie Wood were tremendous people to learn from when you’re a child in this industry. She was a very nice lady and I learned professionalism from her. I also learned how to focus from her and she had a great sense of humor. I got chills watching her film “Rose’s Turn.”
Judy Garland was reportedly Mervyn LeRoy’s other choice to play Mama. How different do you think the film would have been with her?
I was not aware of that. Good heavens! I think her movie persona would have eclipsed both Ethel Merman and Rosalind Russell. She would have brought a whole different personality. There would have been a natural kind of insecurity she would have brought, a very vulnerable element to the character. It’s interesting how different actors can play the same role and bring different pieces of themselves to it. That would have been a very interesting choice. I am absolutely blown away by that piece of information. I always wanted to play that role.
Natalie Wood also had a notorious show business mother. Did you ever discuss this with her or did she offer you advice about the industry?
She offered me support and was sisterly in real life. My mother and Natalie’s mother got along famously. I always saw a very amiable nice woman. I didn’t find out until years later when I read biographies of Natalie that she had any troubles at all. It’s something that I don’t recall because it wasn’t in front of me. When I think of Natalie I think of this beautiful fragile lovely woman. I was awestruck. I was 12 and about to turn into a young woman. And here she was just absolutely gorgeous. Inside you could tell there was a great deal of vulnerability. I think she looked upon me as this kid going through this business and she related to that. I related to her being compassionate. I felt a kinship. At the end of the filming she came to the schoolhouse and brought me a gift. It was a beautiful charm bracelet with a heart that said “To Ann, Love Natalie” on one side and the other side said “Dainty June.”
Any special memories of her?
I remember standing watching her — remember this is an almost totally black soundstage — and she’s putting her makeup on. I was standing watching her and I felt the presence of someone next to me leaning against a ladder, a man who was watching her too. I said, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” He said, “Oh yes, she is.” It was Warren Beatty. [Laughs]
Of course it was! What is it about Gypsy that makes it such an enduring classic?
Great music. Great characters. There’s a universal understanding of familial relationships. And there’s the added layer that you’re peeking into unfamiliar worlds. There’s the world of vaudeville and the world of burlesque. Those always have a curiosity. It’s sexy. The enduring element of course is not just the anchor of Mama Rose but the character of Gypsy Rose Lee. The scene where she looks in the mirror and says, “Mama, I’m a pretty girl,” Natalie Wood did absolutely unbelievably. There is nobody in this entire world who could watch that scene and not agree with her 100 percent.
I posted a note on Facebook that I was interviewing you and got a lot of messages from people saying they miss you and want to see you on TV again. Do you have plans to return to acting?
I’m thinking about it again. The reason I pulled away was I made a priority choice to be with my family. I had a son late in life. I was 42 when I gave birth to him and I wanted to be a hands-on mom. I wanted to be able to drop him off at school and not be a thousand miles away on location. Also my parents needed help so we moved them into our home and took care of them. Raising a child to me is a very serious job. I know that a lot of women think you can have it all. I say this: Yes, you can, but perhaps not all at the same time. If you do, then, in my opinion, something is going to suffer and I didn’t want my son to suffer. That’s why I pulled away. It wasn’t because I lost interest in my craft. I think at some point now that my son is in college I will be stepping out on my own again.
Watch the original trailer for the film below.