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Cancer can't stop her: what's next for the award-winning Ann Jillian after the movie in which she relived the ordeal of her double mastectomy?

She was beautiful and she had on a lot of makeup, and the hotel's security director-a moonlighting Chicago police sergeant named Andy Murcia-figured her for either a lady of the evening or a theatrical type. The cop, responsible for keeping pimps, hookers, and burglars away from Chicago's Ambassador East Hotel, followed the woman across the lobby and into the Pump Room. The ma'itre d' asked her if she wanted to sit at a table or at the bar.

Before she could answer, the cop said, "Let her sit at the bar and I'll ask her to dance."

The woman walked away; then she turned, looked back over her shoulder at the cop, and said with a smile, "I'm going to take a table; then you can come over and ask me to dance. , ,

Ann Jillian laughs, with the deep, throaty laugh of the gum-chewing, brassy Cassie, her former character on the TV comedy "It's a Living." "I have always been proud of that scene," she says. "That's the way Andy and I really met in Chicago ten years ago, and that's the way the scene was played in my movie. I lived a script long before it became one."

"I think she's always living a script," her husband, Andy Murcia, says happily. "Even before she made the movie, her life was scripted out for her."

Ann and her husband are sitting in the living room of their unpretentious but comfortable Los Angeles homeshe calls it their "Ozzie-and-Harriet house"-and talking about their made-for-TV movie, The Ann Jillian Story. The film chronicles the couple's personal love story, but even more, Ann's deeply moving and inspiring ordeal with breast cancer. The critically well-received film drew a large viewing audience to become the highest-rated original TV movie of the 1987-88 season. It also made Ann Jillian a symbol of hope for millions of women who suffer from breast cancer.

Ann played herself in the movie. "That movie-in one nutshell statement-was the most difficult thing I ever had to do," Ann says and then adds, "and it always will be."

It isn't easy for an actress to portray her own persona. It has the elements of a play by Pirandello; the actress becomes a mirror image of herself, an illusion at once real and fantastical. It's like Alice stepping through the looking glass into another world.

"It was an unusual situation," Ann Jillian says, relaxing into an overstuffed couch. She is flawlessly made-up; her skin at age 38 is smooth and unlined, and her platinum hair curves around her head like a white plume.

"When the filming first began," she cont"I kept asking myself, 'How would she do this?' . . . then, 'What would I do?' " She laughs. "Between 'How would she do this?' and 'What would I actually do as the actress,' I'd end up laughing at myself. I was the actress and the real person all at one time.

"When I had to think back to the time when Andy"she looks at her husband on the opposite couch- "and I first met in the hotel in Chicago, I saw the scene in the third person. I remembered another young woman, and not me, even though I knew intellectually it was me." She cocks her head quizzically. "Does that make sense?"

The movie was filmed in Toronto, Canada, not Chicago, New York, and L es, where the actual story took place. Scenes were recreated but could not be duplicated, creating a difficulty forAnn.

"I went to Chicago on my own with a camera and took pictures of all the landmarks and places where we went, what we did," Andy says, "and I asked the producers to please use Chicago. How do you duplicate those little things? The restaurant and coffee shop we went to. . . ." He shrugs.

In The Ann Jillian Story, Andy Murcia was portrayed by Tony Lo Bianco, an Italian with sharp, dark features and a slender frame. Murcia is Irish and Spanish and his skin is pale, his features rounded.

"Nobody knows what I look like," Andy says, easing back into the couch and folding his arms over his ample stomach. He is a warm, friendly, good-natured huggy-bear of a man with a gruff edge-a characteristic no doubt left over from his days as a Chicago cop.

Ann Jillian studies her husband for a moment. "To me Andy has an Irish look. He has the map of Ireland all over his face."

Were the two of them pleased with the movie?

"Yes," Ann answers quickly. "Everybody at NBC was wonderful, and working with the director, Corey Allen, was great. I loved what he did. There is no way I could have had a screaming director."

Andy pauses before heanswers the question. "I'm real picky," he says. His brow furrows; then, shaking his head, he adds, "I've got a problem with this movie, and I've been trying to put my feelings together."

He pauses, thinking it out before saying it: "I'm jealous of the guy, Tony, who played me."

He leans forward, trying to explain, using his hands: "Not mad at him-jealous. Because next to me he knows my wife almost as intimately as I do. I think I resent that and it makes it hard for me to look at this thing objectively. I went through this cancer ordeal with her. She's my girl." He shakes his I wish to h- I would have been an actor and done it myself."

Ann smiles warmly at him. There is obviously much love between them. Their close family ties are evident in the fiving room: the fireplace mantel is lined with family snapshots; a table near the front window also has a profusion of framed family pictures, as does a baby grand piano. On the glass-topped coffee table are photo envelopes stuffed with new failily pictures waiting to be sorted and framed.

Andy shuffles a few of these photographs. "Don't get me wrong," he says. "I think Tony Lo Bianco did a great job. He would come to Ann's trailer before a scene, and he would say, 'Andy, make it naked for me; I want your guts! Strip it for me, come on, babe.' " Andy wipes his hand across his mouth. "He would get me to a point where I was almost reliving it. He would say, 'What did you do to her when she was sick from chemotherapy? What did you do with your hands?' And I said I was rubbing her back, like in a circle motion-she was over the toilet-I was holding her poor little stomach." He stops suddenly and looks over at Ann and sees something in her face. "Am I saying something wrong?" he asks.

"No, you're not," she says softly.

The experience of reliving the discovery of her cancer, the removal of both her breasts, and the four months of chemotherapy was more traumatic than she had anticipated. "I thought I would be protected because of the time that had passed, and because I could attack it from an actress' point of view. But it wasn't that easy," she says. The hardest thing for Ann Jillian was reliving chemotherapy. "In the movie scene where I was given the injection, I would taste the metal in my mouth again and feel the burning sensation and the fuzziness-then the sickness. And the anger would come back to me, all the hate I had toward this thing cared cancer," she says.

Why did Ann Jillian subject herself to the ordeal again? Was it the actress in her trying to get out? Or was it something more? When she was still in the hospital recovering from her double mastectomy, a studio literary agent called and Don't worry, we'll get you a book deal."

Ann Jillian's eyes go wide. "A book deal? I said, 'Get out of my face; I haven't come out of anesthesia!' " she recalls.

Ann didn't do the "book deal." But she did go public with her story and her struggle against cancer. "When you have an adversity, you can turn it around and make it work for the good of others," she says. One reason she decided to tell her story was a letter she received from a nun in New York.

"She said it very simply," Ann says. "'God chooses his teachers in strange ways.' "

Ann, whose Catholic faith has always been a cornerstone of her life, told her story in national magazines. The response was startling-she received more than 100,000 letters. Ann started a "Life Saved" file of letters from women who had decided to do something about breast cancer. "Women were saying, 'If that blonde jumping bean can do it, if she can live through a mastectomy, then so can I," Ann says.

Then NBC suggested making the story into a movie. At first Ann was reluctant to do it. Then she thought: If a magazine article could help this many people and save lives, think what one night of a movie could do. Millions of people would see it. She also felt that the movie would be the final act in talking publicly about her ordeal. She would continue to address the subject on a humanitarian level(she is a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society), but she would separate that from her work as an actress.

At first Ann didn't think she would play the role of herself in the movie. "She was the only one who thought so," Andy says. "She kept saying, 'No, it shouldn't be me,' and it took three days to convince her."

Although Ann Jillian looks healthy and fit sitting on the couch today, at the time, her chemotherapy treatments had caused her to go from a size 8 to a size 16. The fact that she had to portray a size-8, 26-year-old woman in the movie spawned a dieting panic. She says, "I had told the producer I would use some of my own clothes in the film; then I discovered I couldn't put my leg into some of them!" She lost the weight in five months-and has kept it off.

It's tough to squeeze ten years into 94 minutes of a movie. Does Ann Jillian feel it was a fair representation of this ever-changing and dramatic period of her life?

"Yes, it was," she says slowly; and then she hedges, "But there was one thing the movie missed. Andy and I both wanted to have some montages to explain visually, in a capsulated form, what transpired in my career as an actress." She smiles wistfully. "We wanted that so badly."

"The problem was, the movie represented her more as a singer," Andy adds. "Sure that's what she was when she started out, and that's what she was when I met her, but her fame came as the result of her acting and her Emmy nominations for her portrayal of Mae West and her acting job in Ellis Island." He shrugs and asks, "Where was that stuff in the film? What does anyone know about her life before we met?"

Jurate Nauseds was the second child born to Lithuanian parents. Ann's mother wanted to be an actress but had to leave Lithuania to escape the Russian takeover. "I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts," Ann says, "but I must have been conceived on the USS General Mercy en route to America!" And she bursts into laughter.

Her mother had little Jurate dancing and singing by the time she was four years old. The little girl appeared on Art Linkletter's television progra"House Party" and was asked to sing. She did, and they practically had to use the hook to get her offstage. When she was 12, she auditioned for the film Gypsy and got the part of Dainty June opposite Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell. Ann also played Little Bo Peep in Walt Disney's classic Babes in Toyland She continued performing through high school and later obtained a scholarship to the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera.

While performing as a torch singer with a traveling troupe, Ann met a Chicago police sergeant, Andy Murcia. She quit performing to dedicate her time to being a wife.

"There I was, a policeman's wife with no place for the creativity to get out," she recalls. "It was trying to come out my fingers, out of my pores." That's when she met Mickey Rooney and was cast with him and Ann Miller in the Broadway smash hit Sugar Babies. An executive from NBC saw the show and cast her as Cassie in the TV comedy "It's a Living."

Another blonde bombshell had landed in Hollywood.

Although Ann Jillian was asked, she never played nude scenes. Today, even the sexy stuff is not a thing of the past for Ann. She can't show cleavage, of course, but she can look great in a sweater. (Since her chest muscles are intact, she could have reconstructive surgery, but instead, she wears prostheses-and she can order them to any size. Her sense of humor makes it easier to laugh at this than to cry.)

Before she had her mastectomy, Ann played the sexiestand her personal favorite-role of her career: Mae West. On a wall in her living room is a nearlife-size photograph of Ann in a tight-waisted black gown and feathered hat. "Mae West was a flamboyant and wonderful character," she says, "and she gave me my acting stripes." (Jillian's first Emmy nomination was for her performance as the "Come up and see me sometime" actress.)

Where does she go from here? Although she would love to do comedy, she left her successful TV series. "The character of Cassie was going down the tubes," she says. "The writing had changed-for the worse so I quit."

She stretches her arms, tiring from the long interview. "Born Yesterday I've always loved that. You know, the part Judy Holliday made famous. But, you may want to do something, and the producer doesn't see you as that type of person, so. . . ." Her eyes seem to take on an extra luster and you can see the energy coming through.

And you have to look at her, this sometime blonde bombshell, with the unbridled exuberance, and the lively eyes, and the platinum hair and flawless complexion, and think, yeah, Born Yesterday-Judy Holliday-it fits.

It also fits in with her answer when asked how would she like to be remembered 40 years from now.

She pauses for a few moments and then says softly, "Just say that Ann Jillian made somebody feel good, made somebody smile."
COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Millner, Cork
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Apr 1, 1988
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