By Peter Lester
October 05, 1981 12:00 PM

‘I think of myself as an actress, not a sex symbol’

Few performers ever reach the top without a voracious hunger for fame, and Ann Jillian, at 31, has tasted enough success these past years to whet an already formidable appetite. Last season she fetched up as Cassie, the brassily man-hungry blonde of ABC’s sitcom about waitresses, It’s a Living. Jillian snagged most of the notices, but the show went cold in the Nielsens and was sent back to the kitchen. Recast (Louise Lasser is the new headliner) and renamed Making a Living, the sitcom still faces a tough future when it returns this fall against CBS’s supercharged Dukes of Hazzard. That just makes Jillian even more eager. “There are girls out there 24 years old, and that’s a tough comparison for a woman in her 30s,” she frets. “I hope my attributes will be preserved for a good while, but I feel my time has come and, without being snotty about it, deservedly so.”

Indeed Ann has been a trouper since age 4, and her dues have been paid—notably during her breakthrough role in the smash Broadway musical Sugar Babies. As the “Bird Lady” of the slapshtiky burlesque farce, Ann sang nightly with 14 pigeons perched on her curvaceously revealing costume. The birds’ reaction sometimes seemed critical, but the problem was really alimentary. “Everyone told me it meant good luck,” she sighs, and everyone was right. She became the darling of Sugar Babies star Mickey Rooney, who had recommended her for the role after she appeared with him in a 1978 Chicago production of Goodnight Ladies. She says Rooney was never more than her mentor. “We got close in that he obviously took a liking to what he thought was attractive,” says Ann, who was, and is, very married. “Mickey and I had a beautiful kind of love affair that was not what people would say is a love affair. My heart just goes out to him.”

The attention Jillian received from Sugar Babies co-star Ann Miller was of a different sort. The trouble began when Miller hurt her ankle and Jillian, with an expanded role, got reviews in San Francisco that were perhaps too good. In short order, says Jillian, “My first solo got cut, my costumes changed, and by the time we got to New York I’d gone from third lead to head chorus girl.” She suspects that Miller, who “continually referred to me as ‘the blonde’ or ‘Mickey’s protégée,’ ” felt threatened. “I understood it,” Jillian says now. “It’s like a territorial imperative, and Ann was gracious when the time came to be.”

Jillian began training for such occupational hazards as a youngster. Her immigrant parents, who fled Lithuania by bicycle after World War II, settled in L.A. There, her father worked as a machinist, and her mother pushed Ann into showbiz. By 1961 she was playing with Annette Funicello and Ray Bolger in a Radio City Music Hall production of Babes in Toyland. The next year, at 12, she starred with Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell in Gypsy, the sharp film critique of stage mothers. Jillian defends her own. “I couldn’t have asked for a better childhood,” she says. “I was dressed in beautiful costumes and envied by a lot of kids.”

Puberty ended all that. “I shot up in height,” recalls Jillian, now 5’8″, “and nothing fit together. I started taking rejections so personally that I left the business.” After graduation from Taft High School, she worked for two dispiriting years in the draperies section of an L.A. department store. Then she tried again. As half of a song-and-dance act with singer Debra Shulman, she opened lounge shows for entertainers such as Robert Goulet and Johnnie Ray. Going solo in 1975, she began her long climb as a singing waitress in a San Francisco gay bar.

Two years later, in a Chicago show called Words and Music, it seemed her admirers hadn’t changed. “I told her I was gay so she would move in with me,” laughs husband Andy Murcia, who was a Chicago cop moonlighting as a bouncer when he met Jillian at a disco. A few days later he sent her a huge bouquet of flowers signed, “To my star, Love, Andy the Sarge.” But, Ann grins, “When I found another card inside saying, ‘Happy Birthday Boo Boo,’ I realized he had sent me hot flowers.” Nevertheless, the ploy worked. They married in 1977, and Andy quit the force to become Ann’s manager. He has recently been replaced by starmaker Joyce Selznick, but he remains her happy house-husband and biggest booster. While they’re looking for a house, Ann and Andy now share a tiny San Fernando Valley apartment, where the only pets are their names for each other—Killer (him) and Baby. Career plans preclude kids right now—and just about everything else. In addition to Making a Living, she’s looking for movie roles. “We’re a cohesive unit working toward one goal,” says Jillian. “Yeah,” Andy laughingly interjects. “To make more money.”