In the 1962 film, the role is played by Rosalind Russell, with Natalie Wood as Louise/Gypsy and Karl Malden as Rose’s sometime love interest, Herbie. One of the few surviving performers from the movie is Ann Jillian, who played Dainty June and spoke with The Advocate about the experience of making the film.
“I started it on my 12th birthday,” recalls Jillian, who went on to transition from child star to successful adult actress, appearing in the 1980s TV sitcom It’s a Living and many other television shows, movies, and stage productions. The pressure was big for a 12-year-old, she notes, but the desire to do the job was bigger. Russell, Wood, and Malden were major stars, and she respected them without being intimidated by their fame. “I looked at it as we’re all going in to do a job,” she says.
She remembers Russell as “professional and regal,” Wood as “fragile, beautiful, talented, and very warm,” and Malden as “very warm” as well. “They were all very lovely people, and I was very lucky at my age to be working with them,” Jillian says. “I learned an awful lot from them, and it was such a valuable school for me to be in.”
Some critics were upset that Merman was not cast as Mama Rose in the film, and Jillian had seen Merman play the role onstage, but she thinks Russell gave an equally fine performance, with some nuances more suited to film’s intimacy than to the stage. “Even then, I appreciated the difference,” she says. “Both were equally as valid, and Rosalind Russell did a beautiful job.”
Director-producer Mervyn LeRoy, working from Leonard Spigelgass’s adaptation of Laurent’s Broadway script, had a vision of the story and characters as bigger than life, Jillian recalls, but she and Wood worked together to incorporate small but vital touches in their scenes. That bigger-than-life quality may, however, be one of the factors that makes Gypsy, on the stage or on film, appealing to gay audiences.
“There’s a drama about it, of course,” Jillian says when asked about Gypsy’s gay appeal. “Relationship drama, a variety of characters. I’m sure [gay viewers] loved Rosalind. I know without a doubt they loved Natalie.” As everyone seemed to, and the feeling was mutual; Jillian notes that Wood gave her a bracelet engraved with “Dainty June” and “To Ann. Love, Natalie.”
Jillian says she has always had a good relationship with LGBT audiences too, and she counts many gay men and lesbians among her friends. She recalls one night appearing on Broadway in Sugar Babies, an homage to burlesque, in a scene that involved doves perching on her head — and one of them had, well, an accident. The audience that night included many gay men who had come into the city from Fire Island, and they joined Jillian in finding humor in the incident. “They just so enjoyed my enjoyment of the absurdity of the moment,” she says.
Jillian confirms a story circulated online that her husband, former Chicago police officer Andy Murcia, pretended to be gay when they first met so she wouldn’t think he was trying to pick her up. “That is true, and I embraced him and I loved him,” she says. The ruse didn’t last long, the love took on a new dimension, and they have been married since 1977. Their family includes their college-age son, Andrew, and Murcia’s daughter from a previous marriage, Denise.
Murcia has been by Jillian’s side through major life events, including her bout with breast cancer, for which she underwent a double mastectomy in 1985. Jillian, who now spends much time as a motivational speaker, has advice for people with life-threatening conditions such as cancer or AIDS.
“You have to have faith,” she says. “You have to believe in yourself and in the doctors that you choose,” and if your doctor isn’t right for you, make a change. And even if you think you’re healthy, get checked out: “Early detection is still your very best protection.”
If you are diagnosed with a serious illness, your loved ones can make a big difference, she adds. “That comfort does an awful lot to help in recovery,” she says. “The power of a shared tear with someone you love is extremely healthy.”
She also emphasizes that there are more and better treatments for diseases these days and there are “legions” of cancer survivors who, like her, “have gone on to have happy, healthy lives.” And active ones: When told that Barbra Streisand is planning to play Mama Rose in a projected film remake of Gypsy, Jillian quips, “She and I both!”
While some observers have said that Streisand, at 70, is too old to play the mother of young June and Louise, Jillian thinks Babs would be great for the role. “I think she would do a lovely job,” Jillian says. “She still has that voice, and she’s got the guts.”
So while Jillian, who knows something about guts, wouldn’t mind a turn as Rose, it’s fine with her if it’s Barbra’s turn to take on the role. In the meantime, the Blu-ray release will allow you to enjoy Russell, Wood, Malden, and Jillian in the 1962 version, along with some deleted scenes and a theatrical trailer. Sit back and let them entertain you!