Multiple sclerosis made Annette Funicello a prisoner in her own body, robbing the world’s favorite Mouseketeer of her ability to walk, talk and beam the radiant smile that beguiled an army of baby boomers.
But looks can be deceiving. Funicello had unlimited reserves of strength that allowed her to fight with all she had until the end, several family members told The Californian Monday.
“It was painful to see her struggle so many years with MS,” said step-grandson Canaan McDuffie. “She just never gave up, never, ever complained. It was just the definition of strength.”
Surrounded by her family and longtime friend and actress Shelley Fabares, Funicello lost her battle at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield on Monday. She had lived with MS for at least 26 years, the last two of which were spent in the Shafter home she and her husband, Glen Holt, bought decades ago. The couple moved to Kern County permanently after a 2011 fire destroyed their Encino home.
Holt was too distraught to speak to The Californian, but he authorized his children and grandchildren to speak on his behalf.
Making an already fraught time more painful for Funicello’s survivors are what they’re calling inaccurate media reports concerning her final days.
“I was scrolling on Google News to see how fast it hit the wire,” McDuffie said. “The family had put together a release with Disney more or less so it wouldn’t become a TMZ extravaganza.
“The first thing I see is an article from Extra and another article from TMZ that basically said she’s been in a coma for a couple years. The Extra story said that family members had said that she’d been in a coma for the last week. That’s all false.”
Late last year, Holt allowed full access to a Canadian film crew to document the toll multiple sclerosis had taken on his wife, McDuffie said. The segment offers an unflinching — at times, brutal — look at Funicello’s physical deterioration.
“They were thinking the American news media was going to pick it up or that it would get rebroadcast here, but it never happened,” McDuffie said. “They sent reporters out to Bakersfield and they stayed with my grandparents for a day or two. This is the only glimpse into how far her MS had progressed.”
Despite her obviously diminished quality of life, Funicello never gave up, family members said.
“She’s always had a couple nurses there 24/7 since the ’90s,” McDuffie said. “It was some time in the early 2000s pretty much that her speaking had gone. She’s always been able to look at us and communicate through either blinking, try to vocalize through a moan or motion to us, some facial recognition.
“She’s always been coherent, but she was just a prisoner in her body because the MS was so severe. For me, personally, I feel like there’s no way she could have made it this long without the attention and love from my granddad and the staff there to help her.”
Though diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1987, Funicello waited until 1992 to publicly acknowledge she was battling the neurological disorder. At the time, she exuded an optimism that fans had come to expect of her, but there was an underlying courage there, too, that many people may not have associated with her before.
“I have great faith there is a reason God wanted me to have MS,” Funicello told The Californian in 1992. “I think the reason is for me to help others and help raise funds.”
Funicello and Holt launched the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases in 1993. The fund supports research into several neurological diseases, including Alzheimer’s, and in the past year provided funding to five grants, said Lorrain Santoli, executive director of the research fund and a friend of Funicello’s for more than 30 years.
McDuffie said even as Funicello’s condition worsened, his grandfather remained committed to seeking out promising therapies.
“She and my granddad were interested in funding research that gave them hope that seemed to be ignored by the pharmaceutical industry,” he said.
Funicello is survived by her husband, three children, four step-children, 12 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Family members said plans for a public memorial are pending.
In lieu of flowers, Funicello’s family asks that donations be made in her honor to the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases at annetteconnection.com.
— Californian staff writer Matt Munoz contributed to this report.