By Elizabeth Rahe
As she anticipates receiving a Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival Lifetime Achievement Award, Ann-Margret is free-associating about some faces and places from her 72 years.
“Ahhhhh. He discovered me. Ah. [In a raspy George Burns voice] ‘How ya doin,’ Annie.’ He was one of the lights of my life. What a funny man. I learned so much from him – timing, in comedy. He loved to rehearse, and thank goodness I loved to rehearse. He told me so many stories. We would have him over for dinner, and he would always bring a lovely young lady.”
FLIFF will honor the legendary singer/dancer/actor at its gala, held Nov. 9 at the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood, with Grammy-winner Michael Bolton performing (ticket info, https://www.eventbrite.com/event/8515380733/?ref=ebapi). She is speaking from her Beverly Hills home, pausing briefly to let out her cat, Harley. “I’m sorry. I am my cat’s slave – whatever he wants.”
“Oh, my goodness. South Florida I’m crazy about. I played at the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach for 14-15 years. Joe’s Stone Crab, Marcella’s Italian [Restaurant], Wayne Cochran and The Barn. I remember Don Rickles’ mother, Etta, coming to the shows. I can see where Don got his sense of humor. She was a redhead, and she was feisty. … And I remember The Diplomat.’’
After Burns danced a soft-shoe with Ann-Margret Olsson in his holiday show, the Swedish immigrant – whose parents had put her in piano and dance classes near their Chicago home to overcome her introversion – burst into pop culture with a 1961 Life magazine cover story. Soon the brunette-turned-redhead bombshell had a record deal with RCA and a film contract with 20th Century Fox. Post magazine called her “a sizzling mixture of sex appeal plus shyness plus animal spirits plus shrewd management.”
Her career has spanned more than five decades, including hits such as Bye Bye Birdie (1963),The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Carnal Knowledge (1971, her first Academy Award nomination), Tommy (1975, her second Oscar nomination), and Grumpy Old Men (1993). There were variety TV specials and guest-star roles, including her Emmy-winning performance on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2010.
In the ’60s she was dubbed “the female Elvis Presley.” She starred with the iconic entertainer in Viva Las Vegas (1964), and the two became romantically linked. He married Priscilla, and she married actor Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), but their friendship continued until Elvis’ death. She has spoken with emotion about the singer and their bond, but not today.
“Ah, um. A pioneer. He was such a pioneer in the world of music and entertainment.”
“He was great.”
Ann-Margret also headlined a nightclub act, and while performing in Lake Tahoe in ’72, she fell 22 feet from an elevated platform and suffered serious injuries. Smith reportedly stole a private plane to get his wife to doctors in Los Angeles and insisted that her reconstructive facial surgery be performed from the inside to prevent scarring. Ann-Margret, in turn, took care of Smith when he struggled with the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis. Now the couple faces a different foe – his Parkinson’s disease.
“When your spouse has a broken wing, the other one takes care of him, right? That’s the most important thing to me.”
I am so sorry to hear about your husband’s illness.
“Well, to bring a little levity to it, he’s my grumpy old man.” She laughs. “We always kid. We always kid. We obviously love each other, but we also like each other, and we laugh a lot.”
That’s the secret?
“That’s what we have found. And we work at it. Both of us want to make it work.”
Your greatest lifetime achievement?
“One of my greatest achievements was buying my mother and father their first home in 1962 in Los Angeles. I was so thrilled. I came out here with a band, a combo from Northwestern [University]. We called ourselves the Suttletones. I’m the only child. I phoned my parents and said, ‘You guys have got to come out here.’ We lived in this teeny little apartment. Then I bought them their home, and I lived there with them. I started dating Roger, and the rest is history. We’ve been married 46 years.
“That’s one of my very greatest achievements.”
ONLINE BONUS: Ann-Margret free associates on more leading men – Steve McQueen, John Wayne, Jack Nicholson, Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon.
Would you share what comes to mind when I say the names of a few more leading men?
Steve McQueen (The Cincinnati Kid, 1965)
“Oh, great. Oh, yes. McQueen. We loved motorcycles, both of us. And I drove mine to work every day at MGM. The heads at MGM said, ‘We really don’t want you to ride your motorcycle because of the insurance.’ I told that to Steve, and he said, ‘Oh, come on. Ride your bike. Let them be nervous. They know how to worry. You do what you want to do.’ ”
And did you?
“Yes, I did.” [She laughs.]
Do you still ride?
“Yup. I have this beautiful, beautiful Harley that was given to me, and it was painted by this wonderful artist in Brainerd, Minn. It’s lavender, and it’s got Harley Davidson written in script in white with these little daisies going through every single letter. Ah, it’s gorgeous.”
John Wayne (The Train Robbers, 1973)
“Ohhhh. Oh. I have a picture of him with me right here on my mirror. He’s towering over me –he was so huge. When I did The Train Robbers with him, he was very protective, and he was so wonderful to my parents. They came down to the filming in Durango, Mexico, and when my father passed away he sent these beautiful flowers with a beautiful note. He was so wonderful to them. Yes, I loved him.”
Jack Nicholson (Carnal Knowledge, 1971; Tommy, 1975)
“Oh, my gosh. He was, first of all, very funny, and obviously an incredible actor. He was such a giving actor. When you did a scene with him, he was right there.”
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau (Grumpy Old Men, 1993; Grumpier Old Men, 1995)
“I had met Jack when I first came out to Los Angeles, when they were doing a screen test on me for 20th Century Fox. Director Robert Parrish was doing the screen test, and Life magazine was following the whole thing. One of his best friends was Jack Lemmon. We went to [Parrish’s] house, and I met Jack. That was back in 1961, and I didn’t see him again until I did the first Grumpy Old Men.”
That must have been a fun set.
“Oh, yes. Jack was there, playing the piano. He and Walter had been friends for like 65 years or something. It was so cute the way they carried on. They just loved each other. I still have a picture of them. We were making Grumpy Old Men, with the snow in Minneapolis. The sun was shining, and they were in their director’s chairs, both snoozing away. Walter in that crazy hat. I love that picture. Walter was a mischief maker. We had worked all day, and they were doing my close-up, and Walter was sitting there making faces. ‘Walter, please, I can’t stop laughing. Please.’
“I’ve had some great times. Some great individuals, so many great actors, I’ve been really blessed.”
Roger Smith (husband of 46 years and former manager)
“Ah. Roger Smith. I kind of like him. I think it’ll work.”
Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau
FLIFF shines light on films and filmmaking
Great films, filmmakers and stars are on the marquee for the 28th Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival, Oct. 18 – Nov. 11. This year’s celebrity lineup includes Ann-Margret, Lea Thompson, Ed Asner and Tab Hunter. FLIFF screens more than 200 features, documentaries and shorts from around the globe at several locations, including Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale,the new Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Sunrise Civic Center Theatre and Muvico Pompano 18. Advance tickets are available online at FLIFF.com or by calling 954-760-9898.