TV REVIEW : Story of Ann Jillian Cancer Fight Resonates as a Celebration of Life

Yes, it's another true-life tragedy dramatized on the small screen. Yes, it's another "disease" picture--breast cancer in this case. But don't tune this one out. Candid, well-acted and factual, "The Ann Jillian Story," airing tonight at 9 on NBC, is a celebration of life.

Actress Ann Jillian plays herself in what is first and foremost a love story--the romance that led to her marriage to a rough-edged Chicago cop, some years older than she. Tony Lo Bianco plays volatile Andy, who quit his job in law enforcement to become Jillian's manager.

Everything seemed to be going well--career and marriage--when in 1985, breast cancer was diagnosed. Jillian underwent a double mastectomy.

In a business where image is all-important, Jillian, known for her "sexy comedienne" roles, chose to risk her career and not hide what had happened; she chose to do what many women in the public eye have done--work at educating and giving hope to others.

Just weeks after her surgery, this determined survivor was finishing work on a miniseries.

The sensitive teleplay was scripted by Audrey Davis Levin, and Corey Allen (Emmy winner for "Hill Street Blues") directs with finesse. It's all here--the numbing discovery of one lump, then another; the tests, the frightening diagnosis, Jillian and Andy's denial, rage and grief. Then the aftermath of the surgery--the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy, the struggle back to physical and emotional normalcy.

In a shop where Jillian goes to try on a prosthesis for the first time, she's accompanied by her mother (Viveca Lindfors). Lindfors' face reflects acute awareness of the immense grief and fear underlying her daughter's surface confidence. When Jillian comes out of the dressing room "walking tall" again, Lindfors says, through tears, "I'm proud of my daughter."

It's one of the film's many very real moments.

Jillian shares many more with Lo Bianco, who movingly conveys Andy's conflicting efforts to lash out at what hurt Jillian and to reassure her that his love and desire did not change.

The show ends with Jillian singing the inspirational "The Winner in You" at a benefit dinner. She has a stunning voice, but a quieter moment that says as much is when Jillian's father, played by George Touliatos, tells her quietly, "You were put on this earth to live, and that's what you must do."

For Jillian to relive pain so fresh took courage. Watching her, you see a warm, beautiful, talented, healthy young woman, a fighter and survivor, who was sick and then got well.

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