Annette Funicello, who first gained fame as a 12-year-old Mousekeeter on Disney’s “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s and then starred opposite Frankie Avalon in a series of musical beach party films of the early 1960s, has died. She was 70.
Funicello was taken off life support on Monday morning at a hospital in Bakersfield, Calif. She’d battled multiple sclerosis since 1987, first going public with the diagnosis in 1992.
“Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend,” said Disney chairman-CEO Robert Iger. “She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent. Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace.”
Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney, praised Funicello as a “consummate professional” who demonstrated “great loyalty” to Disney.
“Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her,” Miller said. “She was one of the loveliest people I’ve ever known, and was always so kind to everyone.”
In addition to “Beach Party,” “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (the last without Avalon), all directed by William Asher, Funicello starred in the related pic “Pajama Party.” She also starred with Avalon and Fabian in action comedy “Fireball 500” and with Fabian in the more dramatic but similarly stock car-filled “Thunder Alley.” All these films were made at American Intl. Pictures.
Despite the word “bikini” in the title of two of her AIP films, Funicello famously wore a demure two-piece suit in these movies that befit her character.
After her four-year run at AIP, Funicello starred with the Monkees in Bob Rafelson’s trippy 1968 film “Head,” parodying the innocent, sweet-natured character she had played in the beach-party pics.
In 1987 Funicello and Avalon revisited their old stomping ground in “Back to the Beach.” The pair starred in and were credited as co-exec producers on the film, which drew some enthusiastic reviews.
Roger Ebert described the film as “a wicked satire that pokes fun at Frankie, Annette and the whole genre, but does it with a lot of good humor and with the full co-operation of the victims. Avalon and Funicello do a better job of satirizing themselves than anyone else possibly could.”
She and Avalon appeared as themselves in the 1995 telepic “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story,” based on the memoir she co-authored with Patricia Romanowski. (Other actresses portrayed Funicello at earlier ages in the film.)
Funicello made a guest appearance on an episode of “The All New Mickey Mouse Club” in 1990.
In the early 1990s, Funicello appeared on “Good Morning America,” “20/20,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Entertainment Tonight,” among other shows. She made her last screen appearance in a 1996 episode of “Biography” dedicated to her life.
Annette Joanne Funicello was born in Utica, N.Y., on Oct. 22, 1942 and moved with her parents to Los Angeles when she was 4 years old.
She made her debut on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955 after being discovered by Walt Disney at a dance recital in Burbank where she performed as the Swan Queen in “Swan Lake.” She was the only member of the “Mickey Mouse Club” cast selected by Disney himself.
As part of her “Mickey Mouse Club” activities, Funicello played supporting roles in the “Spin and Marty” serials and then starred in the comedic serial “Walt Disney Presents: Annette,” in which she appeared with her lifelong friend Shelley Fabares.
She made her film debut for Disney in 1959’s “The Shaggy Dog,” playing a romantic interest for lead Tommy Kirk, and starred with Ray Bolger and Tommy Sands in the studio’s 1961 bigscreen version of operetta “Babes in Toyland.”
Billed solely as Annette, Funicello released a number of albums for Disney and hit the top 10 with the Sherman brothers-penned “Tall Paul” in 1959 and with “O Dio Mio” in 1960.
The young actress appeared repeatedly on ABC’s “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.” She also recurred on “Make Room for Daddy” in 1959 as Gina Minelli and later guested on “Wagon Train,” “Burke’s Law,” “Love, American Style,” “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”
Funicello occasionally paired again with Avalon in front of the camera. She was a special guest star on four episodes of the brief series “Easy Does It… Starring Frankie Avalon” in 1976; an NBC comedy pilot called “Frankie and Annette: The Second Time Around” did not sell in 1978. And they cameo’d together in the 1989 film “Troop Beverly Hills.”
Funicello appeared in the Disney-produced NBC telepic “Lots of Luck” in 1985 and did her last TV acting turn in a 1986 episode of “Growing Pains.” She was named a Disney Legend in 1992.
Suffering from the most severe form of multiple sclerosis, Funicello eventually lost the ability to walk and, later, to talk. Her caretaker was her second husband, Glen Holt, who endorsed a controversial treatment for MS. A Canadian TV documentary depicted her debilitated state in October .
Funicello was first married to casting agent Jack Gilardi. They divorced in 1983.
In addition to Holt, Funicello is survived by three children from her marriage to Gilardi: sons Jack Gilardi Jr., a producer, and Jason Gilardi and daughter Gina Portman.
“She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven,” her children said in a joint statement.
Donations may be made to the Annette Funicello Research Fund, which she established in 1992 to fund research into the disease: AnnetteConnection.com.