Funicello was the epitome of straight-laced as one of the original “Mousketeers” on Disney’s “Micky Mouse Club” television show from 1955 to 1959. She sang, danced and acted in skits as herself and was known simply as “Annette.”
She was a last-minute addition to the cast after Walt Disney personally spotted her performing and recruited her for the show. She quickly became one of the most popular “Mousketeers,” and Disney built a franchise around her.
It launched her as a singer on its Buena Vista label and several of her pop singles, such as “Tall Paul,” “Pineapple Princess,” and “Oh Dio Mio,” became big hits. She also starred in several Micky Mouse Club spin-off serials such “Adventures in Dairyland,” and the “Spin and Marty Show.”
After she outgrew the Micky Mouse Club, she remained under contract to Disney and started appearing in movies and television shows like “Zorro,” with Guy Williams. She also co-starred in “The Shaggy Dog,” “Babes in Toyland,” “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” and “The Monkey’s Uncle.”
By the early 1960s, Funicello had reinvented herself as a movie actress. She starred in her first movie apart from Disney in 1963 when she was 21. The movie “Beach Party” with Frankie Avalon as her lead, was so popular it spawned five sequels.
“Muscle Beach Party” (1964), “Bikini Beach” (1964), “Pajama Party” (1964), “Beach Blanket Bingo” (1965) and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” (1965) followed. Funicello spent a good part of the movies in a bikini that was risque for the times, but would be considered wildly conservative today.
In 1992 she went public with the news she was suffering from multiple sclerosis, after keeping the affliction secret for years. The disease started affecting her ability to walk in 1987 and tabloid reports started hinting that she was an alcoholic.
She struggled with the disease for the rest of her life. She could no longer walk by 2004 and lost the ability to speak in 2009. After that, she required round-the-clock care to live. Her life story, based on her autobiography, was made into a television movie in 1995.