LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Annette Funicello, America's girl next door who captured the innocence of the 1950s and 1960s as a Disney Mouseketeer and the star of beach party movies, died on Monday at age 70, the Walt Disney Co. said.
Funicello died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, California, from complications of multiple sclerosis, the television and film studio said.
Her family told celebrity news television program "Extra" that Funicello had been in a coma.
"Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mouseketeer, and a true Disney legend," Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of Walt Disney Co., said in a statement.
"She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney's brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent," he said.
Funicello caught the public eye as a 12-year-old in 1955 when she became one of the original members of Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club," a trademark show of the clean-cut fifties.
She went on to star in a series of beach movies in the 1960s including "Beach Party," "Bikini Beach" and the hit "Beach Blanket Bingo," released in 1965 and co-starring teen idol Frankie Avalon.
In later life, she was remembered for her valiant fight against multiple sclerosis, a crippling disease of the nervous system that she developed in the late 1980s.
It led the once-vivacious singer and actress to depend first on a cane, then a walker and finally a wheelchair.
"We are so sorry to lose Mother," Funicello's children, Jack, Jason and Gina, said in a statement. "She is no longer suffering anymore and is now dancing in heaven. We love and will miss her terribly."
SHIFT TO THE BIG SCREEN
Funicello was by far the most popular of the dozen or so youngsters who donned Mouseketeers outfits for the Disney show and received the most fan mail.
As she matured from child to young woman she outgrew the Mouseketeers but remained in demand, guest-starring in fifties-era TV staples such as "The Danny Thomas Show" and "Zorro."
Funicello had her own TV series, "Annette," in 1958 in which she played a country girl living with relatives in the big city. The series lasted only one season.
She moved to the big screen in 1957 with "Johnny Tremaine," an American Revolutionary War drama, and co-starred in "The Shaggy Dog" in 1959.
But it was a string of beach and surfing movies in the sixties with bubble-gum heartthrob Avalon that really brought Funicello fame and fortune.
After starring in the 1968 rock'n'roll comedy "Head," Funicello disappeared from the big screen. She remained active on television, however, and acted as spokesperson for Skippy peanut butter for nearly 20 years.
She re-emerged with Avalon to reprise their sand-and-surf roles in "Back to the Beach '87."
It was while making that movie that Funicello began to experience the first symptoms of MS, although she did not know it at the time. In 1992 she announced that she had been suffering from MS for five years.
Funicello was born in Utica, New York, and the family moved to California when she was a child. Her father, Joe, was a mechanic and her mother, Virginia, devoted herself to her daughter's show-business career once she became a Mouseketeer.
Funicello married Hollywood agent Jack Gilardi in 1965 and the couple had three children. The couple divorced in 1981, and she married racehorse breeder Glen Holt in 1986.
(Reporting by Eric Kelsey, editing by Jill Serjeant and Xavier Briand)