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Ann-Margret: The Kitten Has Become a Tiger

It takes someone with real star quality to be a one-name wonder, and Ann-Margret née Olsson fills the bill with looks, talent and charisma. George Burns is credited with discovering the voluptuous Swede when she played a lounge show in Las Vegas in November 1960. But it wasn’t until the Valsjobyn-born performer shimmied and shook her way across the stage at the 1962 Academy Awards that America sat up and took notice. Not only did she brighten the ink of several top gossip columnists the next morning, she was the focus of water cooler conversation nationwide. Hollywood’s next sex kitten was launched.

Fast forward 41 years and Ann-Margret still has chops.
At 62, her schedule is one that would exhaust many a woman half her age: In early 2003, she wrapped up an 18-month tour of Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for which she also recorded the cast album. She guest-starred in a three-episode arc of Third Watch that aired in November. She also performed a 30-city tour of her own show, Here! Now!; and she stars in the Hallmark Channel movie, A Place Called Home, airing Sunday, Jan. 11 at 9 p.m.

Shot entirely on location in Lake Tahoe, A Place Called Home is the story of a widow who takes a second chance at life when she takes in an aimless drifter and his precocious daughter.

Why they call her "Slugger"
Do-overs are definitely something Ann-Margret can relate to. Her career was considered to be at an end in 1972 when, while performing, she fell 22-feet off a platform at the Sahara Tahoe Hotel and crushed the left side of her face.

Ten weeks later, she was back on stage. Her recovery earned her the nickname Slugger. "This wonderful friend of mine who is no longer, this gentleman named me that because I am like a fighter," she says. "I’d be knocked down but I’d get back up. And he gave but me this little pin. It was two boxing gloves." It was Ann-Margret’s husband Roger Smith who was instrumental in her rehabilitation. He flew to her side through a dense fog to bring her back to Los Angeles to recover and where the top plastic surgeons were able to reconstruct her face.

What a relationship!
The couple first met at an airport in passing, but it wasn’t until they were reintroduced two years later by Allan Carr (producer of Grease) that romance blossomed. Ann-Margret developed such trust in Smith’s judgment, she asked him, the former star of 77 Sunset Strip, also to be her manager. He agreed to do so and partnered with Carr for the job. Of their successful union, she says, "You both have to want to make it work. If one person goes overboard … I mean, if she or he just bends over backwards to make it work, it won’t. We don’t ever take it for granted either. We still like each other, isn’t that amazing? And we still laugh." The actress declares that it is their constant togetherness that has been the linchpin of their marriage. So, before accepting the role in Whorehouse, she made sure that Roger’s health (He was diagnosed with Mamography Myasthenia Gravis back in the early ‘80s.) was up to the task of traveling Bone Density from city to city.

But what about The King?
Despite the longevity of that relationship—they have been married since May 8, 1967 and lived together several years before that—people are still fascinated by Ann-Margret’s earlier connection-to Elvis Presley.

The two became acquainted on the set of the 1964 movie Viva Las Vegas and the sizzle they had onscreen extended off-screen as well. The actress has always been discreet about her relationship with The King; even in her autobiography Ann Margret: My Life, released in 1994, she only hinted at what went on between them, pointing out that Elvis was already committed to his then teen queen, be knocked down Priscillaget back up. Beaulieu.And he gave But their friendship continued throughout Elvis’ life and it is said that Ann-Margret never had an opening night without receiving a bouquet from her swivel-hipped co-star.

Viva Las Vegas and Bye Bye Birdie (shot a year earlier) were an auspicious beginning for the upcoming entertainer, so much so that she was iconized as Ann-Margrock on a 1963 episode of The Flintstones. Then, such unremarkable films as The Pleasure Seekers, Bus Riley's Back in Town, and C.C. and Company took her on a downward spiral. The critics had a field day, and Ann-Margret, like Rodney Danger-field, got no respect.

The comeback kid
It was Mike Nichols who resuscitated her career when he cast her opposite Jack Nicholson in 1971's Carnal Knowledge. As Nicholson's mistress, Ann-Mar-gret played a woman whose life had been defined by her sexuality. The role had a definite resonance for a woman who had been labeled a sex kitten. Her tour de force performance earned her the first of two Academy Award nominations. The second was for her powerful role as the deaf, dumb and blind boy’s mother in Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975).

"I knew somewhere inside of me that I could do something dramatic," says the five-time Golden Globe winner. "Actually the first man who realized that was Stanley Kramer [who cast me in] the movie I did with Anthony Quinn called R.P.M. But also there is a movie that I did called Kitten With a Whip—because of the title it sounds like a cartoon, but I was very happy with that. One of the main critics in New York in 1964 said some really nice things about me in the newspaper. I carried that thing around with me for probably 15 years because everybody was giving me a lot of agro, meaning aggravation."

A kitten no more
Since moving away from her sex kitten roles, Ann-Margret has tried not to repeat herself, and looks for parts that "grab me emotionally." They have included the Cincinnati Kid, Stagecoach, Joseph Andrews, Middle Age Crazy, Magic, and, most recently Grumpy Old Men and its sequel, Grumpier Old Men.

In the years since her 40th birthday, her meatiest roles have been for television. time Emmy nominee for playing a dying mother in Who Will Love My Children, Blanche DuBois in Streetcar Named Desire, a plantation matriarch in Queen and the title role in Life of Party: The Pamela Harriman Story. Other critically acclaimed TV roles have included Our Sons (with Julie Andrews), Nobody’s Children, Following Her Heart, Scarlett, and Seduced by Madness.

Song and dance
Another mainstay of her career has been a little song and a little dance. Ann-Margret strutted her stuff on several TV specials including From Hollywood With Love, Rhinestone Cowgirl, When You’re Smiling and Ann-Margret Olsson, as well as the no-holdsbarred shows she headlined for years in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and Lake Tahoe (which she stopped doing eleven years ago). But touring in Best Little Whorehouse re-triggered her desire. "That old performer thing came back that you can’t operate out and you can’t tear out," she explains. "I went back and said, ‘Honey, I want to do my show again,’ and we started. I was amazed. I hadn’t done anything prior from Bye, Bye Birdie or Viva Las Vegas, so we pulled two or three numbers, and I put in a song my mother taught me when I was four years old in Sweden."

The multi-talented performer named the show Here and Now because she claims to have learned a few things since last time she performed.

Boosting morale
Appreciative of the opportunities that her career has provided her, the curvy redhead has used her talent generously. In fact, meeting Bob Hope, who was the emcee of the 1962 Academy Awards, led her to become active in supporting U.S. troops overseas. Last October, they returned the favor.

"Because I went over to Viet Nam in '66 and '68, the USO honored me with a Spirit of Hope Award [the organization’s highest award—named for Bob Hope] for entertaining the troops, and I am so touched and honored," she says.

Despite her schedule, Ann-Margret manages to book some free time during which she likes nothing better than riding her Harley Davidson with Smith and a bunch of friends who have bikes, and skiing.

Moms are always right
"Roger gets extremely nervous with both of those activities because I have been known to be reckless," she reveals. "My mother, bless her soul, used to call me (with Swedish accent) ‘a reckless woman.’"

And Ann-Margret’s mother Anna, who died in 2001 at age 82, was right. Motorcycle riding has Margret not been without its cost. In 2000, just before she began rehearsals for Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, an accident in Minnesota left Ann-Margret with four broken ribs, a broken shoul- der and tender tendons, forcing her to show up for rehearsals in a wheelchair. In December that same year, one of her six cats caused her to catch her high heel and trip on the sidewalk. She fell, breaking her wrist.

The comeback kid comes back again
Whether it was the series of broken bones, or because she saw what osteoporosis had done to Children her friends, in 2001 Ann-Margret took a bone density scan. The results showed that the rest of her bones were as fine as her famed cheekbones. Still, it gave her enough pause to consent to be spokeswoman for a What 60 Looks Like Now program, sponsored by The National Council on the Aging, to encourage other women to get themselves scanned.

In the two years since, Ann-Margret has put her good health to excellent use, and she has no plans of stopping now. In 2004, the Beverly Hills resident is looking ahead to new challenges. "I love working," she admits. "It is my passion."


By Paulette Cohn


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