Ann Miller, the raven-haired, long-legged actress and dancer whose machine-gun taps won her stardom during the golden age of movie musicals, died Thursday of lung cancer. She was 81.
Miller died at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, said Esme Chandlee, her longtime friend and former publicist.
A onetime childhood dance prodigy, she reached the peak of her film career at MGM in the late 1940s and early ’50s with “On the Town,” “Easter Parade” and “Kiss Me Kate.”
She remained a dazzling tapper in her 60s and earned millions on Broadway and touring with Mickey Rooney in “Sugar Babies,” a razzmatazz tribute to the era of burlesque.
“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.”
Miller’s legs, pretty face and fast tapping (she claimed the record of 500 taps a minute) earned her jobs in vaudeville and night clubs when she first came to Hollywood. She adopted the stage name of Anne Miller. Her early film career included working as a child extra in films and as a chorus girl in a minor musical, “The Devil on Horseback.”
An appearance at the popular Bal Tabarin in San Francisco won a contract at RKO studio, where her name was shortened to Ann.
Her first film at RKO, “New Faces of 1937,” featured her dancing. She next played an acting hopeful in “Stage Door,” with Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball and Eve Arden.
Most of her RKO films were low-budget musicals and comedies. A contract at Columbia Pictures started impressively with the role of the would-be ballerina in Frank Capra’s Oscar-winning “You Can’t Take It with You.”
Then she was cast in a series of wartime B musicals with titles like “True to the Army,” “Priorities on Parade” and “Hey Rookie.”
When Cyd Charisse broke a leg before starting “Easter Parade” at MGM with Fred Astaire, Miller replaced her. That led to an MGM contract and her most enduring work.
She was teamed with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in “On the Town,” Red Skelton in “Watch the Birdie,” and Bob Fosse in “Kiss Me Kate.”
‘Lonely life’Other MGM films included: “Texas Carnival,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Small Town Girl,” “Deep in My Heart,” “Hit the Deck” and “The Opposite Sex.”
The popularity of musicals declined in the 1950s, and her film career ended in 1956. Miller remained active in television and the theater, dancing and belting songs on Broadway in “Hello, Dolly” and “Mame.”
In later years, she astounded audiences in New York, Las Vegas and on the road with her dynamic tapping in “Sugar Babies” when she was in her 60s. In 1990, she commented that “Sugar Babies” had made her financially independent.
Before each performance (1,700 on Broadway), she practiced for an hour.
“Honestly, I have had to live like a high priestess in this show,” she remarked in a 1984 interview. “It is a very, very lonely life. When you work the way I work — that means hard — there’s no time for play.”
She was born Johnnie Lucille Collier in Chireno, Texas, the first name dictated by her father, who had wanted a boy. After her parents divorced, she was called Annie, for reasons she never knew.