Movie and Broadway hoofer Ann Miller dies. The lightning-fast tapper, whose hits included ''Kiss Me Kate'' and the long-running musical ''Sugar Babies,'' was 81

By Joshua Rich
Updated January 23, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Ann Miller: Chris Delmas/ZUMA Press/NewsCom

Hoofer Ann Miller had long legs, as did her career. The Texas-born tapper, who starred in some of the top movie musicals of the 1940s and ’50s but really hit her stride on stage in the 1980s, died Thursday of lung cancer at a Los Angeles hospital, the Associated Press reports. She was believed to be 81.

In her hoofing heyday, Miller claimed to be able to tap a record 500 times a minute. She was known more for her speed and skill as a dancer than for her acting ability until she landed a major role opposite Fred Astaire in MGM’s ”Easter Parade” (1948). Miller went on to star in such classic MGM musicals of the era as ”On the Town” and ”Kiss Me Kate,” which contained what may be her best screen number, ”Too Darn Hot.”

The end of the MGM era in the late ’50s seemed to spell the end of Miller’s career. But after 20 years of stage and TV work (including a memorable ad where she danced atop a giant can of Campbell’s soup), she enjoyed the comeback of a lifetime with the 1979 musical ”Sugar Babies,” in which she starred with Mickey Rooney. The show ran for more than 1,200 performances on Broadway, followed by a hugely successful tour. ”I was never the star in films,” she recalled in an AP interview. ”I was the brassy, goodhearted showgirl. I never really had my big moment on the screen. ‘Sugar Babies’ gave me the stardom that my soul kind of yearned for.” It also made her financially independent.

In the last decade, Miller was little seen, except as parodied by Molly Shannon on ”Saturday Night Live.” Her final screen role was as Coco Lenoix, the colorful Los Angeles landlady of aspiring starlet Naomi Watts in 2001’s ”Mulholland Drive,” lending David Lynch’s eerie drama a bit of faded Hollywood glamour.