Since its inception as a comic strip in 1924, Little Orphan Annie has become an American icon, and its indefatigable, perpetually optimistic, redheaded namesake has undergone many transformations. In 1930, the plucky orphan’s story debuted as a radio serial that went on to be wildly successful, running for 12 years. It was also adapted into films circa 1930 and 1938, respectively.
However, it’s arguably director John Huston’s lavish adaptation, released in 1982, that contemporary pop culture remembers most fondly. Though the movie starred Broadway and cinematic giants like Carol Burnett, Bernadette Peters, and Albert Finney, it was Aileen Quinn as Annie who stole the spotlight.
Originally from Yardley, Penn., Quinn grew up in a showbiz family, eventually landing the coveted part of Annie and beating out 20,000 other hopefuls in the process. She went on to earn rave reviews for her performance in the film, and her career ended up being far from a "fifteen minutes of fame" phenomenon.
Read on to find out what America’s (or at least ’80s America’s) favorite pint-sized star has been up to since her auspicious debut.
She starred in several commercials
After the runaway success of Annie, Aileen Quinn became one of the most sought-after young actresses of her time. As a result, the actress was as in demand for commercial work as she was for mainstream TV and film gigs. In addition to doing a spot for Northern Bathroom Tissue, she made a memorable appearance for Minute Maid orange juice, in which she wore full Annie regalia and assured a table full of orphans that they would eventually be adopted. As long as they continued to drink their OJ, that is. Or at least, that was the implication — not unlike the old "be sure to drink your Ovaltine" radio spots.
Young Quinn also did some pre-Annie gigs, like a 1979 commercial for a series of Mattel toys called Gorgeous Creatures Dolls and for Planters Cheese Balls — an appropriately "redheaded" species of snack food, so to speak.
Not everyone loved her performance
The Golden Raspberry Awards (aka the "Razzies") were created by publicist John Wilson in the early 1980s. Though somewhat of a good-natured joke, said prizes were designed to celebrate the "worst" films, actors, and directors of the year. Somehow Aileen Quinn — who was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards (one for New Star of the Year and one for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture) — also managed to garner one of these none-too-prestigious accolades. In 1983, she was nominated for a "Worst New Star" Razzie award for reasons that remain unclear to this day.
What exactly did critics expect from a young girl playing a legendary character? We thought she did a pretty good job!
At least Aileen Quinn was in good company — actors Mary Tyler Moore, Mia Farrow, and Arnold Schwarzenegger were all nominated for Razzie awards that same year, too.
Just your average kid
Annie mania may have been all the rage in the early ’80s, but, although Aileen Quinn relished the spotlight as much as any little girl catapulted into stardom might have been expected to, she also remained, at heart, a normal kid from a close-knit community.
In a 1982 interview, fresh off the success of Annie, Quinn put it this way: "Now that the movie’s released, my life really hasn’t changed that much. … I’m still the Aileen Quinn I always was. I still live in Yardley, Penn."
Noting that she still likes to hang out with other kids, Quinn said, "Filming to me is like playing with my friends." Though she admitted that she’d like to stay in showbiz if at all possible, she also maintained that, "If I don’t find any parts to play, then I’ll come back to Yardley, Penn. and be myself again."
There were supposed to be more Annie films
The 1982 version of Annie was not intended to be a one-hit sensation. On the contrary, Quinn was actually under a seven-year contract to make more Annie films, but they never happened. So, she decided to turn her attention elsewhere.
"I got to have a normal high school and a normal life outside of Hollywood," Quinn recalled for Broadway.com. "That’s when I started to delve into theater because I was under contract and could only take regional theater gigs."
Indeed, according to Biography.com, she continued touring America, doing Shakespeare for the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art and appearing in productions like Fiddler on the Roof and Peter Pan.
In another interview, Quinn said, "So by the time I was 16 or 17, and my contract was officially up and I could do other things, then it was kind of past the point. It was kind of like, ‘Who are you again?’ So I decided to get a really good education, especially with my mom being a teacher. I’m really glad I did."
She continued working in showbiz
Though Annie was the biggest cinematic role of her life — at least, at the time of this writing — actress Aileen Quinn continued working in the film and television industries for some time after snagging her most famous gig.
Some people consider Annie to be a Cinderella story of sorts. If that’s true, Quinn would appear to prefer fairytale-type movies, given her subsequent film roles. She starred in the 1988 musical The Frog Prince, based on the Brothers Grimm’s tale The Frog King. She also served as the voice of Dorothy Gale in a 1982 cartoon version of The Wizard of Oz.
But Quinn didn’t just stick to movies. She also tried her hand at television, showing up in an episode of the Great Space Coaster, a beloved early-to-mid-’80s after-school staple. She also contributed to 1993’s Addams Family Values soundtrack, singing the Annie classic "Tomorrow," no less.
She taught college-level drama
The phrase "life imitates art" turned out to be particularly appropriate for Quinn. As a matter of fact, according to an interview she did with Entertainment Weekly, she ended up teaching drama at New Jersey’s Monmouth University — which just happens to have been where Daddy Warbucks’ mansion was filmed in Annie.
As of 2012, Quinn was still an adjunct professor in the arts at Monmouth. Her job at the university was initiated after she participated in a fundraiser for the school.
"After I gave my speech, they had me go up the stairs and I sang ‘Tomorrow,’" Quinn recalled. "That was so surreal. … There were some conversations afterwards and they asked if I would be interested in teaching, and I said I would actually love that."
Soon afterwards, Quinn was presiding over "a theater course for non-majors" and then an "Acting for TV class the year after that." She noted, "I really like teaching there, and there’s some really good raw talent. I’ve had some great people in my classes, people who could really do it [showbiz] as a living."
She’s fond of her time as Annie
About 30 years after her debut as Annie, Aileen Quinn shared many memories of her time on the set. In a video interview for Playbill, she recalled, "I was actually in the Broadway show in about 1981. … I was doing the Broadway show while I was simultaneously auditioning for the film." She added, "So film actually came much more naturally to me."
Quinn also recalled her endearing naïveté when it came to the major stars she found herself working alongside. "Carol Burnett, the first time I met her, that’s the joke, is that I said, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re the lady from the Reading and Continental commercial!’ And she paused for a minute … she went, ‘You’re right, Aileen. Yes, I am.’"
Quinn also recalled her affectionate relationships with Albert Finney and Bernadette Peters. And she had a particularly special relationship with Tim Curry, despite the "bad guy" role he played in the film.
She united with two other Annies
In 2012, Quinn participated in a fun and enlightening interview with Katie Couric, in which she reunited with three generations’ worth of Annies — the "middle child" being herself. Sitting alongside Andrea McArdle (who played the first Annie on Broadway) and Lilla Crawford (who starred in the 2012 Broadway revival of the show), she reminisced about one of the major highlights of her childhood.
When discussing her favorite part about filming Annie, Quinn recalled, "I love ‘Hard Knock Life’… in the movie you get to splash in all those buckets, and all the water comes out." After McArdle suggested that "Hard Knock Life" was "kind of a chance to get your frustrations out," both Quinn and Crawford enthusiastically agreed, with Quinn pointing out, "Us tough Annie girls, right?"
Quinn’s second favorite moment was when they filmed the Fourth of July scenes in the movie, noting that she loved "tap-dancing on the stairs with Albert Finney, and the Big Apple circus behind me, and the guy on the bicycles."
She’s pursued a music career
As one might expect, Aileen Quinn’s fantastic talent didn’t simply diminish with her childhood stardom. As of 2011, she’s been the lead singer for the rockabilly group The Leapin’ Lizards — named, of course, after one of comic strip Little Orphan Annie’s favorite catchphrases. According to the band’s official website, they’ve released a CD titled Spin Me, as well as a few other offerings.
They’ve also played at some pretty impressive venues, including Los Angeles’ famed Whisky a Go Go and even Disneyland itself.
Of the famous Whisky a Go Go, Quinn had this to say to the LA Weekly in 2018: "It’s just hardcore enough, but not too crazy like other places down the street. … So many bands have gotten their starts there. I’m always rubbing the walls."