Ann Jillian didn’t set out to be a role model, yet fate had other plans. Acting since age 6, she found her biggest success with ’80s roles that showcased her brassy sense of humor, like Hollywood legend Mae West and Cassie Cranston, the waitress she played in the sitcom It’s a Living. But everything came to a sudden halt when she was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy in 1985.
Her journey, chronicled in the 1988 TV film The Ann Jillian Story, made her an inspiration to millions of women. “I’m happy that I decided to do it — an odd mix of humble and proud,” Ann, 70, says of making the film. She’s just as proud of her nearly 43-year marriage to her manager, Andy Murcia, 79, their son, Andrew, 28, and her singing and motivational speaking careers. “Even with the bad things that have occurred, I still feel very blessed for having a family, and having had my parents for as long as I did,” the Golden Globe winner and three-time Emmy nominee tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “It’s been a beautiful life.”
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Congrats on turning 70! How are you doing?
It’s been 35 years [since I was diagnosed with cancer] and I’m in great health now. I attribute that to early detection, swift medical action, a good life…and checkups! Doctors say you don’t need to come more than once a year, but I like to go every four to six months, so it’s soon enough to find something. My mother was a survivor for 40-plus years and never had a recurrence. I hope I follow in those footsteps.
What impact did The Ann Jillian Story have on you?
I’ve gotten letters over the years saying that the movie helped send people to a doctor, and as a result they saved their lives. My husband had a “you saved my life” file for me, but I haven’t looked at it. That’s where the humility comes in.
People may know you best as the wisecracking Cassie on It’s a Living. What’s your favorite role?
I enjoyed playing Mae West quite a bit because she was bawdy, she was out-there, and she gave me my first Emmy nomination!
How did you get into showbiz?
My mother was a very old-school woman who wanted to be an actress, but her family wouldn’t let her. So after my parents fled from Europe during World War II to Cambridge, Massachusetts, she saw me singing with the television when I was 4 and said, “Aha, we go to Hollywood!” She took my father, my brother and I to L.A. and started to give me singing and dance lessons. So, at age 6, I did my very first thing in Hollywood, [the Western series] The Restless Gun. After that I did shows like Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Leave It to Beaver, Ben Casey, Dr. Kildare, Hazel and [the film] Sammy the Way-Out Seal! [Laughs]
Did you get to sing in anything?
I also did musicals. In the movie Gypsy I played Dainty June, and I did Babes in Toyland. I loved dancing with Ray Bolger in that one — he taught me the tango! And as a young adult, I was too tall to be cast as someone young, so I made my living by singing. I teamed up with a lady, Deborah Shulman, and we backed up Johnnie Ray on his world tour.
After you hit it big as an adult, you starred in Mr. Mom. What was that like?
Great fun. First of all, I got to wear a wig! Michael Keaton had that unique quality, much like [my costar in Sugar Babies on Broadway] Mickey Rooney. Everything around him, he could make funny. He would pick up an inanimate object and say something or do something with it. He had everybody in stitches all the time.
After your cancer diagnosis in 1985, you became a motivational speaker. What do you remember most about that time?
The night before my surgery, Betty Ford called me at the hospital and said, “It’s OK to cry, but not for too long.” My jaw dropped, and she invited me to her home for tea. President Ford came in and sat down! And when the American Cancer Society gave me an award at the White House, they told me, “Don’t come into the Oval Office until we call you.” But the door was open and I couldn’t help myself. I turned my head to see what was going on and they started laughing. President Reagan invited me in! He had the pinkest little cheeks, and he was so sweet.
You’ve done speaking dates, but haven’t had a screen role since 2000. Why?
When my son was around 4, I started to pull back a bit because I wanted to be a hands-on mom, and I left the industry. It was about being there for him.
What decisions are you most proud of?
I was 42 when I had my boy, seven years after getting breast cancer. After a 15-year marriage, you think maybe you’re not meant to have one. At one time I might have thought that I wouldn’t be able to. But he was a healthy boy, and grew up to be an international tax consultant who passed the bar the first time through! He’s just a joy. He lives about 20 minutes away, married to a lovely lady.
Did he ever want to follow your path?
My son has a beautiful voice and could have, because he’s handsome and talented. I was singing concerts with him because it only took a weekend here or there, but he chose another road. He’s wonderful.
What’s your life like today?
Relaxing, sometimes just short of boring. [Laughs] But not really. I love to draw, to write, to be with my son, my husband and our friends. Ruta Lee is a friend of ours — she and I and our husbands were the Fabulous Four, then it became the Scintillating Seven. We meet up, laugh and enjoy life.
You’ll be married 43 years this March. What’s your secret?
Being each other’s best friend, because it’s so important. And trying to “out-nice” each other, because marriage is teamwork. Give each other respect, and when you’re committed to the love, be committed.
How did Andy become your manager?
He was a sergeant in law enforcement, so I assumed he could probably tweak it here and there and become one. He did a great job, because he was a leader. What he didn’t know, he learned along the way.
What effect did that have on your bond?
He certainly was my help and my strength in a lot of places. One of the good things is that I got married at 27, and I was more solid and on my feet but I hadn’t really bloomed yet — that happened with my husband’s help. So his support and going through this incredible journey together brought us even closer.
Any chance you’ll return to acting?
Now that my son is raised, I may put my foot in the entertainment world once again. Sometimes I long for it because I love it. Other times I think of the long hours, the hard work. I was happy where I was at, and it took a lot to get there, so one wonders if you still have the energy to do that. But the nice thing is that I can make that choice of whether or not I want to.
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