April 8, 2013

Actress Annette Funicello, famed Mouseketeer, dies at 70

Cast after Walt Disney saw her at a dance recital, she soon began receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.

The Associated Press

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A 1955 photo of Annette Funicello, a "Mouseketeer" on Walt Disney's TV series the "Mickey Mouse Club."

AP

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A 1978 photo of Annette Funicello at her home in Encino, Calif. Funicello was discovered at age 12 to become the 24th and last Mousketeer chosen for the 1950s televison show "Mickey Mouse Club."

AP

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Outgrowing the kid roles by the early '60s, Annette teamed with Avalon in a series of movies for American-International, the first film company to exploit the burgeoning teen market.

The filmmakers weren't aiming for art, and never stumbled across it. As Halliwell's Film Guide says of "Beach Party": "Quite tolerable in itself, it started an excruciating trend."

The films had songs, cameos by older stars and some laughs. The 1965 "Beach Blanket Bingo," for example, featured subplots involving a mermaid, a motorcycle gang and a skydiving school run by Don Rickles, and comic touches by silent film star Buster Keaton.

Among the other titles: "Muscle Beach Party," ''Bikini Beach," ''How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" and "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine."

The beach films featured ample youthful skin. But not Funicello's.

She remembered in 1987: "Mr. Disney said to me one day, 'Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit.' I did, and I never regretted it."

The shift in teen tastes begun by the Beatles in 1964 and Funicello's first marriage the following year pretty much killed off the beach-movie genre.

After that, she had no interest in edgier, more "adult" roles.

"People are more interested in changing my image than I am," she said in an interview. Scripts were sent to her, and "I read the first 10 pages and I'm a prostitute or a doper, and I fold them up and send them back."

In the 1970s, she made commercials for Skippy peanut butter, appearing with her real-life children.

She and Avalon were reunited in the 1987 movie "Back to the Beach," in which Lori Loughlin played their daughter.

Funicello was "kind and down-to-earth," Loughlin told the AP. "She was truly the embodiment of the friendly, all-American girl that we all loved to watch in the beach movies."

It was during the filming of "Back to the Beach" that Funicello noticed she had trouble walking — the first insidious sign of MS. She gradually lost control of her legs. Fearing people might think she was drunk, she went public with her condition in 1992.

She wrote of her triumphs and struggles in her 1994 autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes" — the title taken from a Disney song. In 1995, she appeared briefly in a television docudrama based on her book. And she spoke openly about the degenerative effects of MS.

"My equilibrium is no more; it's just progressively getting worse," she said. "But I thank God I just didn't wake up one morning and not be able to walk. You learn to live with it. You learn to live with anything, you really do."

Kathy Lennon, who was one of the singing Lennon Sisters and became friends with Funicello after appearing on "The Mickey Mouse Club," said she and Funicello stayed in touch until a few years ago, when Lennon made her usual call to wish the actress a happy birthday and learned that MS had robbed her of her ability to speak.

"Annie's just not talking now," Lennon recalled Funicello's husband saying.

Funicello was born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., and her family moved to Los Angeles when she was 4. She began taking dance lessons, and she won a beauty contest at 9. Then came her discovery by Disney.

Funicello's devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.

"He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me," she said. "He was a kid at heart."

Asked about revisionist biographies that have portrayed Disney in a negative light, she said: "I don't know what went on in the conference rooms. I know what I saw. And he was wonderful."

In 1965, Funicello married her agent, Jack Gilardi, and they had three children, Gina, Jack and Jason. The couple divorced 18 years later, and in 1986 she married Glen Holt, a harness racehorse trainer.

After her film career ended, she devoted herself to her family.

"We are so sorry to lose Mother," her children said in a statement. "She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven."

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Additional Photos

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Actress Annette Funicello with singer Frankie Avalon on Malibu Beach, Calif., during the 1963 filming of "Beauty Party."

AP

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In this January 1978 file photo, executive producer Dick Clark welcomes former "Mouseketeer" Annette Funicello to the party when ABC-TV presents "ABC's Silver Anniversary Celebration," a gala four-hour telecast. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/File)

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In this Oct. 20, 1990 file photo, actress and former Mickey Mouse Club member Annette Funicello arrives for the 15th annual Italian American Foundation dinner in Washington. Walt Disney Co. says, Monday, April 8, 2013, that Funicello, also known for her beach movies with Frankie Avalon, has died at age 70. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)



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