Tap star Ann Miller dies

Lung cancer claims raven-haired beauty

This obituary was updated at 2:54 p.m.

HOLLYWOOD — Terp and thesp Ann Miller, who tapped her way through the golden age of movie musicals and became a star of legit tuners later in life, died Thursday at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. Reports of her birthdate varied from 1919 to ’23, but sources confirm the earlier date, which would make her 84.

The cause of death was lung cancer, according to her publicist.

A leggy, black-haired beauty with a winning smile and a machine-gun tap style once timed at 500 taps a minute, she charmed stage, screen and TV auds for almost 70 years. She scored in “Easter Parade” (1948) “On the Town” (1949) and “Kiss Me Kate” (1953) for MGM, then stayed in the limelight with regular TV and legit appearances for another 30 years.

She starred on Broadway in “Mame” and the hit revue “Sugar Babies,” which paired her with another former MGM star, Mickey Rooney.

“Sugar Babies” earned her a Tony nomination as well as an Olivier nom for the London run in 1989.

“At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead; I was never the star in films,” she once recalled. “I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen.

” ‘Sugar Babies’ gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.”

She was born Johnnie Lucille Collier (Dad wanted a boy) in the small east Texas town of Chireno. When her parents divorced, she moved with her mother to California. Her father would not pay alimony and her hearing-impaired mother found it difficult to work. So 14-year-old Ann developed a dance routine, told the managers of the Lions Club and the Black Cat Club that she was 18 and landed a dancing gig for $5 a night.

RKO talent scout Benny Rubin and studio contract player Lucille Ball saw her act at the Bal Tabarin in San Francisco. That landed her a seven-year contract with RKO, and she made her film bow as a dancer in “New Faces of 1937,” when she was still just 16 years old.

Her first speaking role was with Ball and Ginger Rogers in “Stage Door” the same year. “Having a Wonderful Time” followed in 1938 along with a loanout to Columbia for a small role in “You Can’t Take It With You,” which won the Oscar for best picture. By the time the year was over, she had appeared with the Marx Brothers in “Room Service” and scored her first starring role, in “Radio City Revels.”

She went to Broadway in 1939 to appear in “George White’s Scandals,” where she stopped the show cold with her “Mexiconga” number. When she returned to Hollywood, RKO upped her salary from $250 to $3,000 a week and insured her legs for $1 million.

Miller leased herself out for short contracts at Republic and had some low-budget successes for Col, where she made 12 pics in six years.

After World War II, Miller got a break when Cyd Charisse was injured just before starting “Easter Parade.” Miller’s work with Fred Astaire and her memorable “Shakin’ the Blues Away” solo landed her a long-term contract at MGM.

In 1949 she got even luckier, landing one of the three female roles (with Vera Ellen and Betty Garrett) in “On the Town.” Her favorite role was as second lead Bianca in “Kiss Me Kate.”

But by the mid ’50s the big MGM musical trend was about over. Her appearance in the non-musical “The Great American Pastime” found her playing Dean Jones’ mother, which was a stretch (she was only about a decade older than he). It was to be her last movie for many years.

The “That’s Entertainment!” compilations of MGM musicals dug out all her best work and displayed them to a new generation of filmgoers. She was one of the segment “hosts” of “That’s Entertainment! III.”

In 1969 she returned to Broadway to take over the title role of “Mame.” She toured in “Anything Goes” during the ’70s and then segued to “Cactus Flower,” a non-musical into which a dance number was written especially for her.

The vaudeville homage “Sugar Babies” brought her back to Broadway in 1979. She played in Gotham for two years, then toured with the show for most of the next decade.

She continued to pop up on television in occasional guest-starring roles, including a two-hour “Love Boat” and a guest appearance on “Home Improvement” in 1991.

She returned to film for a final turn in David Lynch’s 2001 “Mulholland Drive,” playing off her old-Hollywood image as senior citizen starlet Coco, the landlady of an old-Hollywood-style apartment building.

Her autobiography, “Miller’s High Life” was published in 1972. She also authored “Tapping Into the Force,” about her psychic abilities.

Miller was married three times: to Reese Milner, William Moss and Arthur Cameron. The first two ended in divorce, the last in an annulment.

Information on services is pending.

(Richard Natale and wire services contributed to this report.)

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