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The queen of tap

Ann Miller, the raven-haired, long-legged actor 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 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. She didn't make a movie for decades, until she took a cameo in Won Ton Ton, the Dog Who Saved Hollywood (1976) and was one of the "hosts" of That's Entertainment! III (1994). Her last film role was Coco, the apartment complex manager in David Lynch's acclaimed 2001 film Mulholland Dr.

"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."

Rooney said Thursday that Miller "was a great talent. She is a great talent. I'll never think of her as being gone."

"She told me the last time I spoke to her she wasn't feeling too well, and I said, "Keep your head up, kid.' I'm just very sad."

Miller's legs, pretty face and fast tapping (she claimed the record of 500 taps a minute) earned her jobs in vaudeville and nightclubs when she first came to Hollywood. 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 her a contract at RKO studio, where her stage name, Anne Miller, 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 such as 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.

Her 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, which opened on Broadway in 1979 and toured for years. In 1990, she commented that Sugar Babies had made her financially independent.

Before each performance, 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.

Growing up in Houston, Annie suffered from rickets, and dancing lessons helped straighten her legs. Her mother was almost deaf and could not find work. By age 12, Annie was almost full grown, at 5 feet 5, and she danced to support her mother and herself.

While her career in Hollywood prospered, Miller became a regular figure in the town's nightlife, and she caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer, all-powerful head of MGM. They began dating and could be seen on the dance floors of Ciro's and Mocambo.

"I think one reason Mr. Mayer fancied himself in love with me was that he was lonely," she wrote in her 1972 autobiography, Miller's High Life. (In her 1990 book Tapping into the Force, she discussed her belief in the occult.)

She declared that Mayer pleaded for marriage, but her ever-watchful mother would not allow it. She decided to accept an offer of marriage from steel heir Reese Milner.

After giving birth to a daughter who died three hours later, she divorced Milner. Marriages to oilmen William Moss and Arthur Cameron also ended in divorce.