Born Johnnie Lucille Collier, April 12, 1923, in Chireno, TX; died of lung cancer on January 22, 2004, in Los Angeles, CA. Actress and dancer. Charismatic and popular, Ann Miller performed on stage and screen for more than 60 years. She made films opposite some of Hollywood's most beloved male dancers, including Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. Though she worked hard and always gave her best in any role, she never made it to the level of leading lady until 1979 when she starred in the Broadway show Sugar Babies with movie legend Mickey Rooney. Richard Severo of the New York Times reported that she once said of the role, "I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, good-hearted showgirl . Sugar Babies gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for."
The first and only child of criminal lawyer John Alfred Collier and Clara Birdwell, Miller was named Johnnie at birth because her father had wanted a boy. Miller started dance classes beginning at age five after she suffered a bout of rickets; her mother hoped it would strengthen the young girl's legs. By age ten, Miller was an accomplished tap dancer. Unfortunately, her parents divorced and Miller moved with her mother to California. It was around this time that Miller's birthdates became obscured. Birdwell was deaf and found it hard to find work but Miller could pass for older and began dancing in nightclubs to support the two of them. Her mother started calling her Annie once they moved to California, and eventually Miller adopted the stage name Ann Miller, which she kept throughout her career.
In 1934, she was spotted at a San Francisco nightclub by actress and comedienne Lucille Ball who returned to her studio, RKO, and convinced them to give her a contract. Miller had her uncredited screen debut in the 1934 film Anne of the Green Gables. She had a few more small uncredited appearances before appearing as herself in the 1937 film New Faces of 1937 alongside Ball as well as up-and-coming Hollywood stars Ginger Rogers and Katherine Hepburn. In 1938, she had a memorable role in the film You Can't Take It With You as a member of a freewheeling, somewhat crazy family who meets their very proper soon-to-be in-laws.
Throughout the rest of the 1930s and 1940s, she appeared in a variety of B-grade movies produced by RKO, Columbia, and Republic. Always a favorite with the critics, even when the movie was not well liked, Miller never made it to the leading role in a major Hollywood film. The closest she came was in 1948 after she signed to MGM Studios. She played the ex-girlfriend of Fred Astaire in the classic film Easter Parade. Miles Kreuger, president of the Institute of the American Musical, described her performance of "Shaking the Blues Away" to the Los Angeles Times, "It's a great solo turn where she's on the stage alone and she just uses the space wonderfully. That number captures all the essence . of Ann Miller—the bravura tap dancing and her enormous energy and that joyous smile that was so engaging."
Unfortunately, the era of the Hollywood musical ended. Miller had memorable roles in a couple other films including 1949's On the Town, which starred Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra, and 1953's Kiss Me Kate. By the end of the 1950s she had moved to the small screen and was making occasional appearances on television variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show. She also supported herself by performing at nightclubs. In 2001, Miller returned to the big screen for a role in director David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. As Coco Lenoix, Miller imparted an air of old Hollywood glamour into a film that meant to expose the illusions Hollywood can create.
In 1939, she made her Broadway debut in a show called Scandals. Her performance earned her rave reviews, and she used that as leverage for her film career. Thirty years later she returned to Broadway for even more raves as the title character in Mame. In 1979, after more than 40 years in show business, Miller headlined in yet another popular Broadway show, Sugar Babies. The show toured for years and helped make Miller wealthy. It also earned her her only Tony nomination.
In 1998, she appeared in a production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies as an aging star who has the guts to go on. Her performance earned yet more rave reviews, especially for her take on "I'm Still Here," a song about surviving in show business. Angelo Del Rossi, executive producer for Follies, described her work ethic to the Los Angeles Times, "The audiences adored her . But she wasn't someone with a star complex. She worked. She never slouched on rehearsals. She was very disciplined."
Miller was married and divorced three times. Her first marriage, to millionaire Reese Milner in 1946, ended in divorce a short time after the death of their newborn daughter. She married oilman William Moss in 1958, but divorced him shortly thereafter. Her 1961 marriage to another oilman, Arthur Cameron, was annulled. Despite being unlucky in love, Miller was financially successful. The money she made touring with Sugar Babies made her rich. In addition she had investments in real estates and one of the largest collections of Native American jewelry in the world.
Miller died on January 22, 2004; she was 81. As testament to her contribution to dance, the Smithsonian Institution displays her favorite tap shoes, named Moe and Joe. The director of Mame, John Bowab, told the Los Angeles Times, "She brought an aura of happiness with her to the stage . She was funny, bright, glamorous, and she loved every minute of it."
Independent (London), January 24, 2004, p. 20.
Los Angeles Times, January 23, 2004, p. B10.
New York Times, January 23, 2004, p. A21.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 23, 2004, p. A2.
Washington Post, January 23, 2004, p. B7.
—Eve M. B. Hermann