Monday, August 28, 2017

Top TV Moments: Ann Jillian

Show business, like life, isn’t always fair. But usually those with ample talent and work ethic will find an opportunity to achieve success. 

Certainly that was the case with Ann Jillian, who worked steadily as a child star and an adult, both on television and the concert stage. Her name will certainly be familiar to readers of this blog, possibly a bit more so for those who were young men in the 1980s and fondly recall her striking platinum bob hairstyle, alabaster skin and voluptuous figure. That image plus her sassy way with a comedy line earned comparisons to Jean Harlow.

But I’ve always thought Jillian still deserved more than she got from a career beset by bad luck and bad timing. The series that put her on the map was snakebit from the start, and subsequent attempts found her desperately trying to elevate uninspired material. Then at the height of her success she had to cope with a cancer diagnosis and never got back on track. 

Thankfully, however, she’s still here, healthy, and now inspiring others as a motivational speaker. 

I wish there had been more, but here are some of the most memorable Ann Jillian TV appearances. 

The Twilight Zone (1963)
Three years after making her television debut in an episode of Leave it to Beaver, 13 year-old Ann Jillian played Ilse, the daughter of parents who believed mankind used to have telepathic abilities, and could regain them by not speaking. Raised in a silent household, Ilse is cast out into the world after her parents are killed. “Mute” was a fourth-season TZ episode, when the series tried hour-long stories. That season is less heralded because it’s been kept out of frequent syndication, but it did have its moments and this is one of them. 

Hazel (1965)
Jillian’s first recurring TV role was as Millie Ballard in a dozen or so fifth-season episodes of Hazel. Unfortunately, that was the season in which the entire series format changed after the departures of stars Don DeFore and Whitney Blake. Result? As with her Twilight Zone appearance, Jillian nails a role on a classic TV series from an under-syndicated season that most viewers don’t remember. As I said, bad luck. 

The Partridge Family (1971)
In “Days of Acne and Roses” the Partridges successfully help a socially awkward boy gain self-confidence. Watch for a brunette Ann Jillian at the Taco Stand in the episode’s final scene. That’s her on the left in the flower-print dress. 

It’s a Living (1980)
This was Ann Jillian’s breakthrough moment, though she appeared in less than half of the show’s 120 episodes. Susan Sullivan was top-billed, but Jillian’s blunt and brassy Cassie Cranston got all the best lines right from the pilot. 

For a breezy sitcom about five waitresses working in a Los Angeles hotel restaurant, It’s a Living had a bizarre history. The first season was shortened by a Screen Actors Guild strike. A second-season title change (to Making a Living) and cast changes (Susan Sullivan and Wendy Schaal out, Louise Lasser in) still resulted in cancellation by ABC. But the show returned three years later in syndication, under its original title, with more cast changes (hello, Crystal Bernard!). Jillian was there for the first year of the second run, then had to leave to get treatment for cancer.

Every time the waitress lineup changed, the series reshot its opening sequence of the ladies walking arm-in-arm toward the Westin Bonaventure Hotel. Poor Barrie Youngfellow took that walk so many times she probably still has flashbacks.  

And as befits the Jillian bad luck, the series is not and likely never will be on DVD because every episode featured songs played in the restaurant’s piano bar, all of which would have to be cleared at significant cost.

Battle of the Network Stars (1980)
Unlike the pitiful excuse for a revival that is still airing as of this writing, the original Battle shows featured television’s top stars, risking injury and embarrassment for the glory of their networks. Ann Jillian joined the ABC team for Battles 9, 10 and 11. She tied a record with three straight scoring throws in the baseball dunk, and was among the losing participants in Battle 11’s epic 12-minute tug-of-war climax. As Howard Cosell commented after it was over, “What you saw here today is what sport is really all about.” 

Mae West (1982)
Jillian earned her first Emmy nomination for her portrayal of the flamboyant Mae West, a role that utilized her musical talents as well as her flair for comedy. She played West without relying solely on the exaggerated inflections and mannerisms used by most impersonators. That restraint resulted in a more nuanced portrayal of a trailblazing entertainer. 

Jennifer Slept Here (1983)
Jillian’s second shot at a series had the kind of supernatural high-concept premise that was popular in the 1960s. A family moves into a Beverly Hills mansion once owned by glamorous movie star Jennifer Farrell, now deceased.  As a ghost, she appears to the family’s 14 year-old son, and helps him adjust to high school, dating and life in California. 

Jillian elevated the material as she always did, but the show could not compete against Webster and The Dukes of Hazzard.

Ellis Island (1984)
Richard Burton and Faye Dunaway headlined an impressive cast for this three-episode miniseries from back when the topic of immigration didn’t get everyone yelling at each other. The story spans 60 years, from the 1880s to the 1940s, and follows the lives and fates of about a dozen Europeans whose American journey began at Ellis Island. Jillian plays singer Nellie Byfield, who marries a Russian-Jewish composer (Peter Riegert, possibly channeling Irving Berlin) to further her career. Unlike so many singing TV stars, Jillian actually had the pipes. Perhaps Broadway would have given her better roles than she typically got from television.

Alice In Wonderland (1985)
If you’re an admirer of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, you probably don’t think any of the numerous film and TV adaptations have captured their inspired madness. And you’d be right. But this one’s a nice try, and provides plenty of colorful and interesting distractions while toning down the source material and inserting unnecessary songs. Jillian plays the Red Queen opposite Carol Channing as the White Queen. 

The Ann Jillian Story (1988)
Three years after surviving breast cancer, Jillian played herself in a TV movie about that personal battle. She was nominated for her third Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Miniseries or Motion Picture made for Television. I admit I’ve never been a fan of what are callously referred to as ‘disease of the week’ TV movies, and this one doesn’t entirely avoid the trappings of the genre. But for fans it is certainly worth seeing. 

Ann Jillian (1989)
Jillian’s third and final attempt at a series was created by two Facts of Life staffers. It lasted just ten episodes. She plays Ann McNeil, a widowed mother who moves with her teenage daughter to a quirky small town. While It’s a Living and Jennifer Slept Here can be viewed on YouTube, this show seems lost to the ages, but promo clips suggest it might have been a Gilmore Girls forerunner, though that may be too high a compliment. Hope I get to see it one day. 


  1. You may be interested in this link that Ken Levine posted this week, which includes an interview with Ann Jillian, a childhood friend of his:

    Another enjoyable show with Ann for me was the Disney show/movie "Sammy, the Way-Out Seal", made when she was a preteen. (I think it was released theatrically overseas.) Ann played Portia "Rocky" Sylvester, friend of the Loomis boys. whose seal, Sammy, goes for a swim in her pool with them, and daughter of their dad's boss. Of course later the adults all fall into the pool fully-clothed during ensuing hilarlty.

  2. Check out the following URLs: