Five Strange Facts about the Life of Annette Funicello

1. Sleeping with Zorro?

As a 15-year-old girl in 1957, Annette Funicello had a crush on the TV character Zorro, and "every night I drifted off to sleep hugging his eight-by-ten framed photo to my chest," she remembered in her biography. So the next year, Walt Disney had a special treat for the Mickey Mouse Club star — a guest appearance on Zorro (which was also produced by Walt Disney Studios). The delighted teenager got to celebrate her 16th birthday on the set, where Zorro himself carved a 'Z' into the frosting of her cake. And in that episode Annette also got to wield Zorro's infamous sword — "thrusting it into the chest of my no-good fiancé and sending him plunging off the side of a ship."

That episode was titled "The Postponed Wedding," but Annette's real life romances were more complicated, as she struggled with growing popularity. (Her biography also reveals that she discovered that "for a while one of my brothers was selling my phone number!") Annette lived with her parents until the day she was married, and at the time one tabloid boasted the headline "Annette reveals: How Far I'll Go Now That I'm Engaged." But on the day of her wedding, she received a death threat from a soldier, and remembered that ultimately "Saint Cyril's Church became a guarded fortress filled with unobtrusive Disney security people..."

As Annette marched down the aisle, she was wearing the veil that she'd worn in the Walt Disney movie, "Babes in Toyland". But this wedding wouldn't lead to a fairy tale happy ending. In her biography, Annette wrote that there was "a spat" on her honeymoon, that the honeymooning couple didn't speak to each other for two days, and that she called home to her parents crying. And that three weeks later, she was pregnant.

Her husband was Hollywood agent Jack Gilardi, and they had three children together, though daughter Gina once asked if her father was Frankie Avalon (Annette's co-star from movies like Beach Blanket Bingo), and if so, why was he never home for dinner? Annette got married when she was 23 — and got divorced when she was 39. Years later, she would even film a pilot for a dramatic TV series where she plays a sad widow whose husband was killed in Vietnam, who then meets up with a lost love from her teenaged years who'd tried but failed to become a successful nightclub singer...played by Frankie Avalon.

But in real life, Annette got married again to a former police officer who she met at a race track — and she tells a wonderful story about surprising her now-grown-up fans. They'd complain that they couldn't imagine discovering the former sweet and pure Disney star at a race track, holding a drink in her hand, and smoking a cigarette. "I also have three kids," Annette would remind them.

"So guess what else I do...?"

2. Devo, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Carson

Looking over her career, one of Annette's most fascinating songs was recorded with the Beach Boys in 1965. It was the opening song for "The Monkey's Uncle," a movie about a genius college student named Merlin Jones. "Let them say he's the booby prize," Annette sings, as the Beach Boys supply their familiar harmonies. "He's the boy I idolize..."

But a full 41 years later, in 2006, the Disney Studios released a new album of songs covered by contemporary artists — and chose "The Monkey's Uncle" for its final track. And in an interesting twist, the song was performed by Devo 2.0 — a new generation of teenaged Disney performers, assembled into a 21st-century version of the pioneering new wave band, who were actually backed and produced by the original members of Devo!

Annette also earned a place in television history as the original performer of what eventually became the theme to The Tonight Show. But ironically, it all came from a failed attempt to date Paul Anka, another 1950s teen idol. Though their relationship didn't last, it produced an album titled "Annette Sings Anka" — and years later, Anka would create Johnny Carson's theme from the melody of one of the album's more sentimental tracks. ("And now at long last, it's really love...")

However the most memorable track on that album is probably "Hey Mama," if only for its misplaced set of teen-rebel lyrics, addressing a mother worried that her daughter will become "the leader of a teenaged gang..."

3. Grown-Up Movies?

Even in the movies, there's at least one scene where Annette gets luridly drunk — and then starts driving a race car around an abandoned track.

Fabian: You crazy broad! What's gotten into you?

Annette: Thatshh right, I'm a crazy broad. But you don't care...

Fabian: I'd kiss your silly-looking face if you didn't smell like a brewery..

In Thunder Alley (1967), the former Disney star played the daughter of a racing promoter who gradually starts to fall in love with the traveling driver played by Fabian, and tries to compete for his affection. ("Days of screaming wheels. Nights of reckless pleasure!" promises the movie's tagline. "Their god is speed... Their pleasure an 'anytime' girl!") It was her last film of the 1960s and her last film for 20 years, except for a brief scene in the psychedelic movie Head starring the Monkees. Although she was approached about appearing naked in a film — wearing nothing but that hat with the Mickey Mouse ears that she'd worn as a Mouseketeer — she declined the offer. ("People are more interested in changing my image than I am," she later explained.)

But reportedly, Annette did confess to one interviewer that "I did naughty things. There was a time, I was in my thirties, when I wanted to see an X-rated movie, OK? I bought a blond wig, and I got into the movie.

"It was boring."

4. 125 stitches

Annette bravely struggled through a series of health problems — which was all the more difficult since it was years before the underlying cause was diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. For example, one night, she remembers that it felt like the room in her house had suddenly gone dark and started spinning, while Annette heard "loud, crashing bells." As she ran for the bedroom, she slipped on a ball that one of her children had left on the floor, and gouged her face on the side of a dresser as she fell to the ground. It took 125 stitches and some plastic surgery to repair Annette's face, she writes, and she later discovered that her right eye had a permanent blind spot.

But she also writes that immediately after the accident — and presumably still in shock — she'd blurted out to her husband that "I need to brush my teeth before we go to the hospital."

Annette hid the news of her illness for over five years — not even telling her parents. She later described this period as "Living a lie," and in a 1994 interview with Tom Snyder, she admits that "It was a hard choice for me to make... I tried to keep it a secret. I really did." Her reasons were "I just didn't want pity", and also, "I didn't want to worry anybody." But when she finally revealed the illness, she told USA Today that "Just being able to talk about it now is a big help."

She'd worried people would see her struggling to walk in a restaurant, and come to the conclusion that "'Annette's drunk'."

5. Ears Held High

Her star-dom peaked in the 1950s and 1960s, but Annette continued to hold a special place in the hearts of her fans — though she knew that the world was changing. At one point in his 1994 interview, Tom Snyder describes a commercial promoting the Vermont Teddy Bear Company in which Howard Stern recites the slogan "Give her a bear, she'll bang you!" Annette laughs gamely, then replies that "That's not very Disney." And she also confirmed that Walt Disney had indeed once asked her to never allow her navel to be photographed when she began making movies for other studios.

"How much would we have to give to see your belly button?" Snyder asks eagerly.

"I don't have one," she joked.

But during that same interview, she also comforts a 17-year-old girl in California who'd been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just two weeks earlier, and later Annette would be recognized for the inspiring example she set in raising awareness about the disease. In 1993 she even founded the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, which according to CNN still remains active 20 years later, supporting research into their causes, treatments, and cures. Bob Iger, the new CEO at Disney studios, ultimately told CNN that she "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."

It was because of her status as a former Disney-era icon that her openness had that much more impact. In a made-for-TV movie about her life, Annette said "It makes me so happy when I hear from people that my going public makes them feel stronger. They're not embarrassed to use their canes or to be in a wheelchair because if I can do it, they feel they can too." Though she was played by an actress in most of the film, she appears as herself in its final scenes. And she delivers its inspiring closing line — a characteristically sweet but ultimately very fair assessment of what it all had meant.

"Life doesn't have to be perfect to be wonderful."

My Favorite Roger Ebert Stories

1. "Your Movie Sucks"

Roger Ebert could wield a poison pen as well as anybody. And the story of one confrontation has a permanent place of honor in Ebert's page on Wikipedia. In January 2005, Rob Schneider took out full-page ads in Hollywood newspapers to attack movie critic Patrick Goldstein, who had panned Schneider's recent movie Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo. Schneider suggested mockingly that Goldstein wasn't qualified to critique the movie, since his movie reviews had never won a Pulitzer Prize.

"As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize," Ebert wrote in his own review in the Chicago Sun-Times, "and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

Ebert later even titled his next collection of negative movie reviews, "Your Movie Sucks" — although the rest of his review was equally scathing. ("Schneider was nominated for a 2000 Razzie Award for Worst Supporting Actor, but lost to Jar-Jar Binks...") But Wikipedia notes that this fight actually ended with a surprisingly amicable resolution. "On May 7, 2007, Roger Ebert reported on his website that he had received a bouquet of flowers from Rob Schneider, with a note signed, 'Your least favorite actor, Rob Schneider.' Ebert saw the flowers as a kind gesture and publicly thanked Schneider, and said that Schneider may have made a bad film, but he was not a bad man.

"Ebert also expressed hope that Schneider would make a film that Ebert would find wonderful."

That same good-natured honesty turned up in 2003, when Ebert called Vincent Gallo's The Brown Bunny the worst movie ever shown at the Cannes Film Festival. A columnist at remembers that at one particularly painful part of the film, Ebert "even started singing 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head' out loud, eliciting laughter from what was left of the audience at that point." Ebert had done that before. (In 1987, at a tedious screening of Jaws 4: The Revenge, Ebert couldn't contain himself when he spotted a glaring continuity error. As Michael Caine emerged from the ocean and climbed over the side of a boat, Ebert blurted out to the audience around him, "His shirt is dry!")

Gallo was stung by Ebert's criticism, and called him "a fat pig with the physique of a slave trader," to which Ebert just responded by paraphrasing Winston Churchill in a perfect and devastating comeback. "I can always lose weight, but you will always be the director of The Brown Bunny."

"But then he did a remarkable thing," remembers Deadline's columnist. "[W]hen the film was cut by 26 minutes over a year later, he agreed to see it again and wrote a piece actually reversing his opinion.

"In addition to being sharp, funny, insightful, interesting, opinionated, informed and complex in his writings he was also fair."

2. Thirty-Two Years Ago...

Roger Ebert honestly enjoyed Ice Cube's 1997 horror film Anaconda, and years later his new co-host Richard Roeper didn't let him forget it. But the two men disagreed even more over a 2002 romantic comedy called Never Again — which Roeper liked, but Roger Ebert didn't. He complained that its explicit vulgar language just didn't work in a romantic comedy, and Roeper started teasing Ebert about being so easily upset. Ebert, who had just turned 60, wasn't going to be put in that box.

"Don't condescend to me!" Ebert shouted.

"You're so shocked by it!" Richard Roeper responded smugly, not aware the Ebert had the perfect comeback.

"I've written an X-rated movie!" Ebert retorts. "How many have you written?" And we all smiled, remembering that Ebert did indeed write the screenplay for Russ Meyer's 1970 cult classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Ebert later wrote that in Meyer's films, "the women were always the strong characters, and men were the mindless sex objects." Although he added that the legendary B-movie producer disapproved of silicone implants because "They miss the whole point."

3. Ebert vs. Siskel: the Secret Smackdown

Some remarkable footage surfaced in 2006 showing Roger Ebert's rowdy behind-the-scenes banter with his TV co-host, Gene Siskel. Filmed sometime in the early 1980s, it reveals their brief bursts of on-camera enthusiasm (while recording their promos) to be part of a longer, vicious, battle of wits that kept happening off-camera. Gene Siskel, peeved that Ebert slammed his public speaking ability, reached for the obvious comeback about Ebert's weight. But soon they're just trying to see who can ad lib the funniest put-down. After Gene tries to rattle off a list of foods, all of which Ebert would supposedly order at McDonalds, he ultimately trips over his own words, and Ebert interrupts triumphantly, "I knew Gene couldn't sustain that string for long without a grammatical error..." And then he goes in for the kill. "Now the other day Gene was in there and the little girl said to him, 'Would you like some french fries with your order?', and Gene said, 'No! Maybe... Other! Other! Never mind! Never mind!' And then he walked out..."

"They saw Roger walking in," Gene counters, "and they said one of everything to go. And one of everything to stay here."

"When they saw Gene walking in," Roger retorts, "the little kid behind the counter called for the manager and said 'Mr. Jones, can you come out here? You can understand Mr. Siskel, can't you? I can't ever understand him when he's ordering!" And then on a roll, Ebert ends up doing both the manager's voice and Siskel's incomprehensible response.

"What will you have sir?"

"Uh, Pounder quarter. Pounder quarter. Uh... uh... Quarter pounder. Uh, cheese. No cheese! Cheese. No cheese! Shake milk! Shake milk..."

But by the end, they actually seem to be bonding because of this movie-critic ritual, and I'll never forget Roger's gracious words when Siskel died of brain cancer in 1999. "What Gene and I did together is one of the great joys of my life. My relationship with him was one of the great events of my life."

4. Roger Ebert vs. Bill O'Reilly

Ebert always had strong opinions. (According to the Internet Movie Database, he considered the 1978 film I Spit on Your Grave to be the worst movie he'd ever seen — until he saw a 2010 re-make, which he declared to be even worse.) But through it all, he always seemed proud to be writing for a daily newspaper. "My first professional newspaper job was on The News-Gazette," he remembered in a 2008 article, "in my home town of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. I was 15. The pay was 75 cents a hour, eventually climbing even higher..." So he took offense when the Chicago Sun-Times was listed in a "Hall of Shame" created by Fox News commentator Bill O'Reilly. Ebert wrote a column delivering a fierce rebuttal, but in his typical style, the passion remained connected to a personal memory. Ebert writes that he'd hate to be in O'Reilly's hall of fame because "It would place us in the favor of a man who turns red and starts screaming when anyone disagrees with him. My grade-school teacher, wise Sister Nathan, would have called in your parents and recommended counseling with Father Hogben."

Ebert had spent decades sharpening his writing style, and a quick call to the Sun-Times editors revealed that Bill O'Reilly was going to be a very easy target. "I understand you believe one of the Sun-Times misdemeanors was dropping your syndicated column," Ebert's column continued. "My editor informs me that 'very few' readers complained about the disappearance of your column, adding, 'many more complained about Nancy.'

"I know I did. That was the famous Ernie Bushmiller comic strip in which Sluggo explained that 'wow' was 'mom' spelled upside-down..."

5. Ebert's Last Column

Roger Ebert famously dated Oprah Winfrey back in 1985, but of course there was more to the story. "It begins early one morning in Baltimore," he remembered in a 2005 column in the Sun-Times, "where Gene Siskel and I are scheduled to appear on a morning talk show hosted by a newcomer named Oprah Winfrey. The other guests on the show include a vegetarian chef, and four dwarfs dressed as chipmunks, who will sing 'The Chipmunk Christmas Song' while dancing with Hula-Hoops." It's a funny memoir — on their second date, Ebert treated Oprah to dinner at Hamburger Hamlet, thought at least he also took her out to the movies. And yes, the date ends with Ebert informing Oprah of just how much money she could make by syndicating her show, and the rest was history.

But even people who weren't Oprah have fond memories about the kindness of Roger Ebert. I once e-mailed him asking if he'd ever watched Jennifer Ringley's JenniCam, and Ebert took the time to send me a quick e-mail back. ("Have never watched. Will look and see what I think....") A friend of mine remembers interacting with Roger online back when Ebert was still running CompuServe's movie forum — and being invited to dinner with Ebert during a break at the Cannes Film Festival. And I'll never forget the time a teenaged girl wrote in to Ebert to complain that he'd given a negative review to a teen comedy that she'd actually liked. I can't find that column online, but maybe it's better just to remember it as a legend. "I'm glad you liked it," Ebert wrote back. "I love movies too much to wish anyone a bad time at the movies..."

He dispensed this kindness through his hometown newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, which became his permanent home in print. Ebert seemed to know he'd become famous, but he used this platform for good causes, fighting against book censorship, film colorization, and the no-adult-movie policies at Blockbuster Video. ("It's my belief that no true movie lover has any business going into Blockbuster in the first place, since its policies have done so much harm to modern American cinema...") Over years of reviewing for the Sun-Times, Ebert once calculated he'd seen over 8,000 movies. Maybe that's why, even in print, Ebert always felt like an old friend.

Besides sharing lots of laughs and some personal stories, Roger Ebert shared his deep love for films. On Tuesday, Roger Ebert wrote what would turn out to be his last column for the Chicago Sun-Times — marking the 46th anniversary of the day back in 1967 when he'd first become their film critic. "However you came to know me, I'm glad you did," he wrote, "and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for." And he ended it with his signature trademark. "So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me.

"I'll see you at the movies."