America's sweetheart Annette Funicello already knows what her favorite birthday present will be Sunday: the CBS airing of a movie based on her autobiography, "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story."
"I couldn't think of a better birthday gift than this one," says Funicello via fax. "My 53rd will be one of the most memorable!"
The TV movie chronicles Funicello's early rise to stardom on the 1955-59 series "The Mickey Mouse Club," her recording career, her "Beach Party" films with Frankie Avalon, her life as a wife and mother and her ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis.
Funicello, who is now confined to a wheelchair, narrates and appears in the film. Andrea Nemeth and Elysa Hogg play her as a teen-ager and young girl, respectively, and Eva LaRue ("All My Children") plays Funicello from 17 to 52. Frankie Avalon, Dick Clark and Shelley Fabares make cameo appearances.
Funicello didn't get a lot of requests to turn her book into a film, she says, "but I'm so grateful to CBS. I know it will be a quality show if they're doing it. Since the script was taken directly from my autobiography, they made sure that the events were portrayed exactly like they were described in my book."
She says it was "deja vu" when she met the three actresses playing her. "The actresses that they chose were people that I would have hand-picked myself. All of a sudden, I walked on the set to meet everyone and there were three Annettes and I was the fourth. Chances of that ever happening again are a million to one!"
Avalon finds Funicello's story uplifting. "She is very determined to tell her story," says Avalon. "Usually when a script is presented to you or you are looking to do a project, you always look for what the story point is. You look for the good of a story and to make a story, there has to be a conflict. Unfortunately, in her story the conflict and the bad guy is this disease."
"My life has always been filled with happiness," Funicello says. "I never intended for this film to be a downer. 'A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes' does have a happy ending. I feel that all of us with MS will experience the same."
At the film's conclusion, a 10-second public service announcement will air offering viewers an 800 number for the MS Society.
Executive producer Stanley M. Brooks, who has been a Funicello fan since he was a youngster, found her to be the "the real McCoy. She isn't the glass is half full or half empty [type of person]. She is the most optimistic person. She loves life."
LaRue, born in 1966, knew Funicello primarily as the commercial spokesperson for Skippy peanut butter. Before production began, she decided to watch Funicello's home movies, "Mickey Mouse Club" episodes, the "Beach Party" flicks and read her autobiography.
LaRue also talked with experts from the MS Society, as well as with the producers. "I didn't get a chance to talk to her really about [her illness]," says LaRue, adding that Funicello keeps her talking to a minimum because MS has affected her breathing and speech.
"I talked to her husband and Frankie Avalon and Shelley Fabares about it. I learned quite a bit from them, what she had told them about the disease."
Originally, LaRue thought she should try and imitate Funicello, "but the director and producer didn't really want me to do that. So I tried to capture the essence of her, which ended up being harder because she's got a uniqueness about her."
That uniqueness, LaRue says, was born out of shyness. "She seemed so outgoing and up. But she was so painfully shy. I think it showed in the way she carried herself. She always looked as though she was looking from underneath her eyelids, which came across, I think, as very coy and almost sexy. She was so overcome when she was in a position where she didn't know people or there were a zillion admiring fans. So she would have her chin tucked into her chest and be looking out under these little fluttering eyelashes."
Funicello and Avalon met in 1958. "According to the story in her eyes, I guess [it was] at a Dick Clark show," says Avalon, who plays himself from 1987 to the present day. "That could have been. I recall it to be at a Dick Clark show, but it was at the Hollywood Bowl. We dated a little bit and had a little puppy love."
Avalon says guys adored Funicello because she was the "untouchable girl next door that every male wanted to touch, but knew she was untouchable. Every girl related to her and wanted to be that kind of a girl she portrayed on the screen. She was very feminine, very sweet and very vulnerable."
Ultimately, says LaRue, the film is a "Disneyesque tribute to her, her life and her sickness. I saw a 12-minute cut of it and at the end you can't help but cry. It ends at her daughter's wedding. You don't feel pity for her. You feel her courage, her bravery, her tenacity and love of life. It all just shows in her face. You can't help but love her."
"A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.