Former child star Ann Jillian on becoming an ‘80s sex symbol, fighting cancer at 35: ‘I jumped right in’

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Ann Jillian has faced plenty of ups and downs during her time in Hollywood – and today, the star said she’s blessed to be a survivor.

The actress got her start as a child star whose stage name was given to her by Walt Disney himself before starring in 1961’s “Babes in Toyland.” Just a year later, she appeared in 1962’s “Gypsy” alongside Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell. Jillian successfully grew up in the public eye and went on to star in the TV series “It’s a Living” from 1980 until 1986. In 1985, Jillian was faced with a cancer diagnosis at age 35, which she fought – and won.

At age 71, Jillian is still keeping busy. Most recently, she supported her pal Ruta Lee at The Hollywood Museum, which recently reopened to the public. Lee celebrated the release of her memoir, titled “Consider Your A—Kissed.”

Jillian spoke to Fox News about meeting Disney, becoming a sex symbol as an adult, facing cancer, as well as the biggest lesson she learned from Bob Hope.

Ruta Lee (left) and Ann Jillian attend the Hollywood Museum Grand Reopening and Book Launch Party for Ruta Lee’s "Consider Your A– Kissed" at The Hollywood Museum on May 28, 2021, in Hollywood, Calif.
(Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

Fox News: How would you describe your friendship with Ruta Lee?
Ann Jillian: We’re Lithuanian sisters. We both go to the same parish and we have a lot of the same friends. But she has always been so supportive as a dear friend. Anybody knows that when you’re a part of this industry, you tend to separate. You’ll work with someone on a project or see each other at an event, and then you separate.

People tend to go in different directions. But our friendship has truly solidified over the years. After Dick Van Patten’s memorial, we made a promise to each other that we would always find ways to get together and remain close. And for years, we’ve been loyal friends. One can only be blessed to have such a supportive friend, no matter the industry that you’re in. We’re more than lifelong friends. We truly are sisters at this point. We both had similar upbringings with faith-filled mothers. Our mothers were spunky and strong. We still talk about it now.

Ann Jillian attends The Thalians Holiday Party with Kira Reed Lorsch as Chair at Bel Air Country Club on Dec. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles, Calif. 
(Photo by Greg Doherty/Getty Images for The Thalians)

Fox News: It’s been said that it was Walt Disney of all people who gave you your name. What’s the story behind that?
Jillian: Isn’t that a wonderful memory for anybody to have? Yes, that’s correct. I played Little Bo Peep in the Walt Disney version of “Babes in Toyland.” I started filming on my 11th birthday. After being cast, he invited my mother and me to his office. He was there behind this huge desk. Right next to him was a statue of Mickey. Now, my maiden name is Ann Jura Nauseda. 

Ann Jillian made her mark as a child actress before finding success as an adult in the ‘80s sitcom "It’s a Living."
(Photo by Donaldson Collection/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Walt Disney said to my mother, “You have a beautiful name, and of course we respect that, but we would like to propose something to you. It’s customary in our industry for people to get professional names. Generally speaking, it would be hard to put a name on a marquee that somebody may have difficulty pronouncing correctly. So we were thinking of a professional name for Ann because we believe she’s going to have a long career.” And my mother, in her accent said, “You know the best!” At first, I went by Ann Jilliann with two n’s. But eventually, I got tired of writing that second n and I dropped it. And it stuck.

Fox News: You worked with Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell in “Gypsy.” What was your initial impression of them?
Jillian: Oh, it was absolutely awesome. I did 13 auditions for that film. At first, they decided on a young girl, and of course, I was just devastated. I was not quite 12 at the time. I was absolutely weeping at home. But then about a week later, I got the call and they asked me to come in apparently! It’s my understanding that the other little girl had some trouble with the singing.

Rosalind Russel was regal. That’s the perfect word to describe her. She was very courteous and pleasant, but she was also an absolute professional. That was her goal on set, to do the work. And Natalie was just a sweetheart. Our backgrounds were very similar. Her mother was Russian and my mother spoke Russian. So they got along great on set. Natalie was incredibly kind to me. When we wrapped up filming, she gave me a gold charm bracelet with a heart. It has the date and “love, Natalie.” It’s one of my most treasured possessions. She was just so wonderful and kind.

From left: actresses Natalie Wood (1938-1981), Rosalind Russell (1907-1976) and Ann Jillian as the Hovick women in this publicity still from the movie "Gypsy" directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1962. 
(Photo by Warner Brothers/Courtesy of Getty Images)

I remember she was putting on her makeup on the sound stage. I remember studying her delicate hands and this beautiful face. I don’t even think she noticed I was looking. She was just doing her eyes, which were these remarkable, big, beautiful, brown eyes. I felt someone coming up to me. I turned around and it was a nice-looking man. I believe they were dating. He was just smiling. I said, “She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” He said, “Oh yes, she certainly is.” She was just a lovely woman, very pleasant to work with, absolutely down to earth. A true star.

Fox News: As an adult, you did “It’s a Living,” which made people view you as a sex symbol. How did you feel about the title at the time?
Jillian: Well, it didn’t bother me. When you look at the history of the industry, women like Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe were recognized as blond bombshells or sex symbols. I took it more as [the public] appreciated my looks. And that was fine with me! I think every girl, when she puts on her makeup and is nicely dressed in something that truly looks the best on her, goes out with the intention of accentuating her positives and feeling good. When you look good, you feel good. And that’s how I felt.

I know that over the years, it has evolved into something else. I certainly understand the concerns and I certainly don’t approve of some of the things that have happened over the years [in this industry]. I support women standing up for themselves. But if you ask me specifically how I felt about that title back then, then I have to be very honest with you. And the truth is I felt quite honored that people liked the way I look and I pleased their eyes. I was fine with that.

Ann Jillian said she didn’t mind being recognized as a sex symbol.
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

Fox News: You’ve had a very lasting career in Hollywood. What would you credit that success to?
Jillian: For starters, I worked a lot and I was blessed with a lot of great projects. So I was constantly learning on set. When I became a young adult, I wanted to continue learning. If work wasn’t coming along, I was studying.  I also kept a good attitude. I think attitude has a lot to do with it. I also came from a family that had my back. My faith, which my parents taught to me, became a part of the very fabric of who I am. My faith has kept me grounded. And when you’re grounded, you’re prepared for whatever happens.

This industry, like any industry, has plenty of ups and downs. Certainly when you’re growing up… You have to learn how to cope. And you learn that from having the love of family and friends who want to give you a normal childhood. Some might say it’s not a normal childhood to go into a studio in front of cameras. That’s true. But from a young age, I was taught that it was just playing pretend. I just got paid for it. And playing pretend is very childlike and it made me happy. I was never forced. I did it because I loved it. And I think that made the difference.

Fox News: You were diagnosed with breast cancer at age 35. What kept you going during that fight at such a young age?
Jillian: I was in the midst of shooting the miniseries “Alice in Wonderland.” When I got the diagnosis, of course, it wasn’t something I wanted to hear. My mother had breast cancer so it was always in the back of my mind. But my mother was also very much alive… I noticed it with my own self breast examination, which is extremely important for all women to do. I was in the shower and I noticed something. I immediately went to see a doctor about it. I had a mammogram. And it was good timing.

Over the years, Ann Jillian has been candid about her past battle with cancer.
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

I think if I hadn’t caught it early, I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you today. Early detection and swift medical action saved my life. And it all goes back to having a good attitude. I put my trust in my medical team, as well as my family and friends who supported me along the way… I remember the cast was very supportive. I went back to work 11 days after surgery. Harvey Korman, who played The White King, had to shoot a scene with me and he was very nervous because he was afraid of hurting me. He held me in a really loving way. I felt like my ego was lifted. I jumped right in.

I did an odd little walk as The Red Queen, but I was actually protecting myself during recovery and that’s just the way I was walking. I made it work for me. I had surgery underneath my arms, which affected my range of movement. But I thank the good Lord for bringing me through. Now I can hold my lovely granddaughter in my arms.

Fox News: What’s the most important lesson you learn from Bob Hope?
Jillian: To save your energy. Bob Hope was known for taking naps. He loved getting foot massages and always had a masseuse travel with him at all times. I always saw him as Mr. America because of all those wonderful USO shows he led. He would bring so many stars to entertain our troops. As the daughter of a Lithuanian air force captain, I had a great heart for him and what he was doing.

Actress Ann Jillian attends the taping of "Bob Hope Laughs with the Movie Awards" television special spoofing the Academy Awards nominees on March 20, 1982, at NBC Studios in Burbank, Calif. 
(Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

I remember he asked me to do one of the USO shows. I went with him and his wife Dolores to Riyadh for a Christmas show… I remember whenever he could, Bob Hope took his nap. He wanted to be as energetic as possible for our troops and give them his all. So I learned the importance of conserving your energy to give your very best performance to your audience… It was truly a remarkable experience. He never did any of this for publicity. It truly came from his heart. I could see the delight in his eyes, meeting these men and women, hearing their stories. He would often tear up. …

I remember one day, he turned around and looked at me. He said, sheepishly, but unapologetically, “These are my guys and gals.” I saw one tear roll down his cheek. He was very genuine and compassionate. Every soldier he met was the most important person in the world to him. That left an unforgettable impression on me.

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