When Ann Jillian was a child actress, Ray Bolger, best known as The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow, taught her how to tango. “It was a child-appropriate tango, of course,” recalls Ann to Closer. “There was a wrap party at Walt Disney’s Placerita ranch, and all of us are wearing Western-type clothes. And Ray danced the tango with me.”
In a professional career that began in childhood, Ann, 72, cultivated friendships with many Hollywood legends and racked up some extraordinary experiences on and off the set. By the early 1980s, her beauty, sass and warmth made her the breakout star of the TV sitcom It’s a Living. She appeared on Broadway, sang and danced on television variety shows and did two overseas USO specials with Bob Hope. A breast cancer survivor, Ann also told her story — at a time when women’s cancers were still only whispered about — in 1988’s television movie The Ann Jillian Story.
Giving back is still a big part of Ann’s life. As a member of the event talent committee for the Thalians, a Hollywood charity dedicated to mental health causes, she helped plan this year’s holiday party fundraiser. The event, which will honor TV’s Dr. Phil and wife Robin McGraw, is scheduled for December 3, 2022, at the Hollywood Museum.
How did you get your start as a performer?
My mother noticed that I did a lot of singing and dancing around the house and I had a great memory. So she said, “We have to go to Hollywood.” She uprooted our family in Massachusetts to move there. And that’s how I started.
What was your big break?
The Disney movie Babes in Toyland. I played Little Bo Peep. It was my first experience, and Walt Disney gave me my name.
Walt Disney himself?
Yes, isn’t that something? My mother was called into Walt Disney’s office. He said, “Mrs. Nauseda, you have a beautiful last name, but it’s customary here to change names. We anticipate that your daughter is going to have a big career. We want people to be able to pronounce Ann’s name.” Jack Donahue, our director, had a daughter named Jill. And my name is Ann. And that’s how it became Jillian. Later, I got tired of signing the second n and it became Jillian.
What was Walt Disney like?
Oh, just wonderful. He knew everybody by name. He also had a great deal of respect for family.
It’s a Living was a big show. Did you stay in touch with anyone from the series?
Everybody had fun on the set, but afterwards we all really split up. But Paul Kreppel still lives up the street from me. He was Sonny, the lounge’s piano player, in It’s a Living.
What was it like working with Bob Hope?
You did two overseas USO shows with him. He was always such a great guy. When he asked me to do his stuff overseas, it was just remarkable. I always thought that you were never officially in the industry unless you went out with Bob Hope. And it turned out that, sadly, I also did the last show he would do for the USO.
What do you remember most about it?
I accompanied Bob, his daughter and his wife, Dolores, on the airplane that took us directly into Riyadh. When they brought the lights up, all the people — the women and men in uniform — were out there and it was amazing. I saw Bob’s eyes well up, looking out. He said to me, “They’re my guys and gals.”’ You just realized how committed he was.
You survived a bout with breast cancer in the 1980s. Where did your strength come from?
It came from my parents, who were themselves survivors of World War II. They fled on bikes through Europe and then found their way to the United States. My work ethic came from them. My mother developed breast cancer in her late 40s, but she lived until three weeks short of her 90th birthday. I think it also had everything to do with faith. I went to Catholic school, and it’s never left me. It’s part of my being. You need to have strength, goodness and something constant like faith in your life.
Speaking of constants, you’ve been married to your husband for 44 years. What is your secret?
Beats me. Originally, we started with the idea that you have to be nice to each other. We haven’t abandoned that. I think the fact that you are friends and have gone through deeply personal challenges together creates a safety net. You were good friends with Sammy Davis Jr.
How did that come about?
He came to see my show in Lake Tahoe, where he was also playing, and we became fast friends. When he found out I was having breast cancer surgery, he called my husband and asked what he could do. Andy told him, “Sammy, there’s nothing we can do but pray.” He said, “I’m on my knees tonight.” That’s so sweet! I will never forget how he opened up his home to me when I was recovering from chemo. Every week, Sammy had a movie night with his friends in his own projection room. He told me, “I know you don’t want to go anywhere, but you are among friends here. Just put a turban on and come on over. Let’s watch movies.” And so I did.
You have a grown son. Did he follow you into show business?
No, but he could have very easily. He has a great voice and a great memory. He’s a very handsome young man, too. But he’s a lawyer. He’s creative, but very highly analytical and practical. And I’m very happy to say that he passed the California bar the first time through.
You’re also a grandmother! Do you love it?
Yes! My granddaughter just turned 1. She’s adorable. The purity, the innocence, the joy — I love looking at the world through her eyes. I love watching her seeing things for the first time. It’s just so remarkable, so wonderful. Watching her just tugs at those love strings in your heart.