(b. 12 April 1923 in Houston, Texas; d. 22 January 2004 in Los Angeles, California), tap dancer and actress who performed in movie musicals, onstage, and on television for more than six decades.
Born Johnnie Lucille Collier, Miller was the daughter of the criminal attorney John Alfred Collier and Clara (Bird-well) Collier, a homemaker. Apparently named Johnnie because her father had wanted a son, she went by the name Lucille as a child. Through the years, there has been considerable confusion concerning her year of birth. Early in her career, she said that she was born in 1919, but years later, she claimed to be four years younger, saying that she had made up the earlier date to get a job while she was still underage. U.S. Census documents confirm that 1923 was Miller’s correct birth year.
Miller’s long career in show business unofficially began in 1933, when she and her mother met a gypsy soothsayer in a bus station in Houston, Texas. For a fee, the fortune-teller predicted that the child would be a star for many years. Clara Collier immediately found her calling as a stage mother, seeing to it that her daughter had ballet lessons to strengthen her legs following a bout with rickets. Through the years the entertainer attributed her professional success to her hard work, her legs, and her mother.
The tap dancer Bill (“Bojangles”) Robinson gave Miller one of her first tap lessons while she was still in Houston. He recommended that she use only tap shoes with wooden soles. The mother and daughter set out for Hollywood, California, leaving John Collier to his law practice back in Texas. Miller soon managed to find enough work to support her mother and herself. She has written that her mother could not work outside the home because she was profoundly deaf. Early in her Hollywood career, a pianist suggested that the entertainer change her name to Anne Miller, but she later wrote that “someone at RKO chopped off the ‘e’.”
Eventually Miller worked her way into feature roles in RKO films. To get an RKO screen test, she asked her father to come up with a phony birth certificate indicating that she was eighteen, and he did. Miller believed that the film New Faces of 1937 landed her a seven-year contract with RKO. Her early credits also included Stage Door (1937), a movie about several stage-struck starlets, and Room Service (1938), featuring the Marx brothers. For Columbia Pictures, Miller made You Can’t Take It with You (1938), with James Stewart and Jean Arthur.
Although Miller had been reluctant about performing on Broadway, she ended up there in George White’s Scandals. Her appearance came about after RKO managers informed Miller that they did not have any more movie musicals planned for her. Her agent talked her mother into letting Miller be part of the play, and she took the stage on 28 August 1939 in New York City. White allowed Miller to choreograph her own tap numbers, including the “Mexiconga,” and they were a hit with audiences as well as with the critics Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan.
Miller believed that her stage success sparked invitations back to Hollywood. As soon as the reviews came out, she had several offers from movie producers. After touring with George White’s Scandals for a year, Miller was back at RKO filming Too Many Girls (1940), starring Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. Miller made Melody Ranch (1940) with Gene Autry and Hit Parade of 1941 for Republic Studios and then Time Out for Rhythm (1941) with Rudy Vallee for Columbia Pictures.
Columbia then offered Miller a seven-year contract, and she made about a dozen pictures during and after World War II. “All my pictures for Columbia, I am the first to admit, were only B pictures,” she wrote in her 1972 autobiography, Miller’s High Life. “That’s why I was known as Queen of the Bees.” In Reveille with Beverly (1943), she played a broadcaster on a morning radio show dedicated to soldiers in a local camp. In the musical comedy What’s Buzzin’, Cousin? (1943), she was cast as the heir to a broken-down hotel. In The Thrill of Brazil (1946) she had the role of a tap-dance star in love with her producer.
It was often written that Miller was in her heyday while she was working for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). Certainly she became a mainstay of its famous movie musicals of the 1940s and 1950s. To many, she was best known for Easter Parade, a 1948 picture starring Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. The plot of the movie, set in 1911, evolves from discord between dancing partners, Don Hewes and Nadine Hale, played by Astaire and Miller. When Nadine sets off on her own, Don recruits a new partner, played by Garland.
In 1949 Miller danced in On the Town, with Gene Kelly. Four years later she was in Small Town Girl with Jane Powell, Farley Granger, and Billie Burke, and she played Bianca in Kiss Me Kate, inspired by the Shakespearean comedy The Taming of the Shrew. Years later Miller wrote that Small Town Girl was one of her favorite films during that period, because she had the chance to perform a Busby Berkeley number. She also thought that Kiss Me Kate represented some of her best work.
The entertainer was quick to acknowledge that none of her three marriages lasted nearly as long as her career. She married Reese Milner on 16 February 1946, William Moss on 22 August 1958, and Arthur Cameron on 25 May 1961. The first two unions ended in divorce, and the third marriage was annulled. She and her first husband had a daughter, who died shortly after she was born. Each of Miller’s husbands asked her to stop working, which she did, only to return to work once the marriages ended.
In 1969 Miller enjoyed a comeback onstage when she took over the title role in Mame from Angela Lansbury. “That rejuvenated my career. It was a big hit for me,” Miller remarked in a 1984 interview. “I also think it inspired the revival of tap.” Miller experienced even greater acclaim in 1979 in Sugar Babies, a burlesque musical that ran for three years on Broadway and toured nationally. Miller costarred with Mickey Rooney, and both performers received Tony Award nominations in 1980. The Washington Post quoted Miller as saying that Sugar Babies gave her the taste of stardom that she had never quite enjoyed in the movies. “At MGM, I always played the second feminine lead.” Miller said. “I was never the star in films. I was the brassy, goodhearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen.”
Miller toured in the stage shows Can-Can, Blithe Spirit, and Hello, Dolly! She also made a popular television commercial in which she danced atop a giant can of soup. Aside from Miller’s High Life, the entertainer collaborated on two other autobiographical projects, Ann Miller, Tops in Taps: An Authorized Pictorial History, with Jim Connor (1981), and Tapping into the Force, with Maxine Asher (1990), which explores Miller’s extrasensory abilities. She was a longtime fan of the occult. In 1998 Miller performed in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in Milburn, New Jersey. She made her last movie appearance in the mystery Mulholland Drive in 2001, playing the quirky manager of an apartment complex.
Miller died of lung cancer in Los Angeles, California, after being admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center following a fall at her home in Beverly Hills, California. She is buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, California. Famous for her spirited dancing and exuberant stage personality, Miller was a favorite of the stage and film for some sixty years. The dancer’s tap shoes, which she dubbed Moe and Joe, have been displayed at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Miller wrote the autobiographical Miller’s High Life (1972) with Norma Lee Browning. Further biographical information is in Whitney Smith, “Dancer Still Kicks with Moe, Joe,” Commercial Appeal (Memphis) (21 Oct. 1984). Obituaries are in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times (all 23 Jan. 2004).