SHE IS SO WEAKENED BY MULTIPLE sclerosis that she can walk only with great difficulty, and usually depends on a wheelchair. Her face is drawn and tired; even breathing seems at times to require more energy than she can summon. But the sense of joy is still there as Annette Funicello visits the Vancouver set of A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes. The TV movie of Funicello's life is scheduled to air on CBS Oct. 22, her 53rd birthday and 40 years to the month since the debut of The Mickey Mouse Club, the show that made her famous.

For Funicello, the soundstage this day must seem like a bizarre hall of mirrors. Her husband, racehorse breeder Glen Holt, 65, pushes her wheelchair onto the set. There, standing under the klieg lights wearing Mouseketeer ears and the trademark white turtleneck sweater embroidered with her name, is another Annette.

And another.

And another.

"Oh my gosh," says Funicello slowly, her voice strained by illness. "This is weird." Giggling, actress Eva LaRue, 28, who portrays Funicello from her late teens until her 40s, sweeps her arms wide to introduce the other Annettes: Elysa Hogg, 7, who plays Funicello as a child, and Andrea Nemeth, 17, who plays the Funicello of the Mouse Club years. "Annette, this is your life," announces LaRue.

The movie's producers certainly hope so. Funicello plays her contemporary self in a few brief scenes in the film, which was shot over one month this summer. "I wanted this movie to be very real and very sentimental," she says. The set includes furnishings from her bedroom at home in Encino, Calif. Members of her family—her father, Joe, a retired mechanic, her mother, Virginia, and her children Jack, 25, Jason, 20, and Gina, 29—appear in a scene that reenacts Gina's 1994 wedding to businessman John Portman. ("The only difference," jokes Gina, a marketing executive, "is that we didn't get so many takes on the real wedding.") Frankie Avalon, 55, Annette's costar in Beach Blanket Bingo and other 1960s surf movies, and perennial teenager Dick Clark, 65, also put in cameos in the movie, which is based on Funicello's 1994 autobiography.

Working on the project, Funicello's friends say, was a way to show their affection for the actress. "We've been close from the beginning," says Avalon, Gina's godfather. "I was happy to help because it's so special for her." Still, he concedes the movie's vérité aspects were jarring. "The whole thing was strange," says the onetime teen idol, who these days does occasional nightclub gigs and has two grandchildren. "There was no going into character—it was real life."

The experience was odd, too, for LaRue, who plays neurosurgeon Maria Santos on ABC's All My Children. She was well aware that the subject of the movie was nearby during the shoot. She also knew that many viewers still have vivid memories of the real Annette in her Mouseketeer years. "Annette is America's sweetheart," says LaRue. "She stands for that sort of 1950s innocence that we all seem to be reaching for these days."

After reading Funicello's book and watching her movies, LaRue felt a kinship with the ex-Mouseketeer. When she first met Funicello, "I ran up to her like I'd known her for years," says LaRue. "Then I noticed she was looking at me really closely to see if I looked like her. I got nervous and just said, 'Oops—gotta go!' and left. She must have thought I was crazy."

In fact, Funicello thought LaRue was just right for the part. "Eva's everything and more that I could ask for," says Funicello, who played no role in casting decisions. "I only wish I actually did look like her." LaRue never sought advice, and Funicello never offered it—though she did regale her film counterpart with stories from her Bingo days. "With a wig on, Eva looks exactly like my beach character," says Funicello. "We made jokes about that. Because my hair is so curly, I never matched in different shots for the beach movies. We had to use a wig—that's why my hair never moved."

Before the project, LaRue knew Funicello only from the older actress's 1970s TV commercials for Skippy peanut butter, which LaRue watched as a child growing up in rural Norco, Calif. Her parents, Luis, 61, a salesman, and Marcie, 58, a now-retired rehabilitation clinic supervisor, divorced when LaRue was 7; she then lived with her mother, her sisters Nika and Lara and her brother Luis.

Like the woman she plays in A Dream Is a Wish, LaRue was onstage early. Funicello joined the Mouse Club at age 13; LaRue won the Little Miss California pageant at 6. After that, LaRue did commercials for McDonald's and American Airlines and studied ballet and singing. But after appearing on the TV talent show Star Search at age 18, LaRue says she discovered "there weren't a lot of job prospects for ballerinas who could sing."

Instead she concentrated on acting, moved to Los Angeles at 19 and began treading a steady career path that took her through shows such as Dallas and Charles in Charge before she joined All My Children in 1993.

With that experience behind her, LaRue, when faced with portraying Annette, worried less about her acting, she says, than about her skin. "I'm way too dark to play Annette without a lot of makeup," she says, noting that her coloring is a legacy of her Puerto Rican ancestry. As it was, LaRue endured 3 hours in the makeup chair each day—though she is quick to say that the chore was nothing compared with the hurdles Funicello faced with her multiple sclerosis.

There is no known cure for the degenerative nerve disorder, which gradually shuts down a sufferer's ability to walk and even breathe. Funicello, diagnosed with the illness in 1987, went public with her condition in 1992, in an effort to quiet gossip that blamed her general unsteadiness on alcohol. By then she was already using a cane. Soon she began to rely on both a walker and a wheelchair when venturing outside her home. Even the simple act of speaking now requires great concentration. To do the narration for the movie, she was guided by a voice coach who, via a hidden earphone, told Funicello how to time her words and breaths during readings. Then there were the hot stage lights. "MS and heat don't mix—one day my body shut down," Funicello explains. "The next day they packed my legs and back in ice to do a scene. I did just fine."

The illness has not damaged Funicello's mind and spirit, and her fortitude, cast members say, brought a sense of mission to the film. "Watching her perform, I don't think there was a dry eye on the set," says actress Linda Lavin, 56, who plays Funicello's mother. "Her life force is huge. She won't give in to this disease."

Virginia Funicello, her daughter's constant companion during the Mouseketeer years, says both she and Annette found the movie an emotional challenge. The set depicting the family's old home in Utica, N.Y., brought back so many memories that "I just cried and cried and cried," Virginia says. Another difficult moment: watching the scene in which LaRue plays Funicello telling her mother that her first marriage, to agent Jack Gilardi, is ending in divorce. Most poignant, though, was seeing the real Annette's struggle with her disease. "It breaks my heart," says her father, Joe.

Back on the set, where they've assembled for publicity photos, the three ghosts of Annette's past join her in a rendition of the old Mouse Club theme song: "M-I-C—See you real soon!/ K-E-Y—Why? Because we like you!"

The real Annette smiles, and tears well up in her eyes.

GREGORY CERIO
MIRO CERNETIG in Vancouver

  • Contributors:
  • Miro Cernetig.