- Associated Press - Friday, February 11, 2011

LELAND, MISS. (AP) - Actress Marie Lillo, who sang opera and performed in musical comedies and on television during her 60-year career, has died. She was 81.

Lillo’s niece, Connie Lillo Thieman, told The Associated Press on Friday that Lillo died of cancer Feb. 1 in Los Angeles.

Lillo toured with Milton Berle as a member of a classical quartet who sang while he performed and she won a 1998-99 Drama League Award for the character Emma in Joe DiPietro’s off-Broadway hit “Over the River and Through the Woods.”

Lillo’s niece says Lillo’s career started in opera. Lillo’s later roles included an old hunchback psychic nun in the NBC series “Passions” and as Maggie Jones in David Merrick’s “42nd Street” _ her Broadway debut, her family said. She also starred in a number of Las Vegas productions, costarred in the Texas tour of “Deathtrap” with Leslie Nielsen, and with Cesar Romero in the national tour of “The Max Factor.”

“She was just a life force, on stage and off,” DiPietro said.

When he adapted “Babes in Arms” for Goodspeed Musicals in 2002, he added the role of the world’s oldest living chorus girl. “We needed someone who could sing and do comedy and was a real sort-of broad,” he said. At the first rehearsal, DiPietro said, Lillo belted out “The Lady is a Tramp” and the rest of the cast stopped to give her a standing ovation. “She brought the house down every time,” he said.

She spent years touring with Berle as one of four opera-trained singers who performed classical quartets while Berle performed with his ventriloquist’s dummies, said Stephen Loyacano, who became friends with Lillo while both were at Loyola University in New Orleans and went on to write for television and movies as Stephen Lord.

Lillo was born in New Jersey. Her parents moved to Leland near the Mississippi-Arkansas border and opened a restaurant when she was young. She graduated from Loyola and also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Lillo returned to Leland after her mother had a stroke in 1984, and spent several years caring for her.

“For someone with her level of talent, it was an amazing thing to do,” DiPietro said. “When she got back into it, she started getting into theater, some TV things _ she did well for herself.”

Lillo taught voice and acting, despite the cancer, which returned in April after she had six healthy years, Thieman said. When the cancer came back, Lillo said: “‘If I can’t teach, this is not a life I want to live,’” Thieman said. “She loved teaching _ loved giving away what she had. She was such an encourager. You felt like you were her favorite. She made everybody feel like that.”

A funeral Mass will be celebrated Saturday in Leland. A memorial service was scheduled Saturday at Theatre 40 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

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