Viva Ann-Margret

From Bye Bye Birdie to Las Vegas and Beyond, the entertainer's lengthy career proves the staying power of her talent and appeal.

Deann Lubell Arts & Entertainment

Reprising many of the difficult numbers she performed as a young woman, including one with a motorcycle, Ann-Margret blew apart the premise that a woman in her 60s lacks an edgy allure. A standing ovation curtain call at her 2003 McCallum Theatre appearance proved that this Swedish-born sex-kitten of the 1960s still has what it takes to rile up a full house.

“Performing at the McCallum was a real thrill for me, as it is a beautiful theater with warm audiences,” recalls the singer/ dancer/ actress while relaxing on a floralprint sofa in her spacious Beverly Hills living room accented in pastel pinks and greens.

She returns to the desert on April 20 (eight days shy of her 67th birthday) to be inducted into the Gold Circle, an honor bestowed by the Pacific Southwest Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in recognition of 50 or more years in show business.

As the afternoon sun filters through white plantation shutters covering bay windows overlooking acres of raw rolling hills, Ann-Margret’s face looks fresh and dewy, with just a hint of mascara and lipstick. Her normally bouffant red hair is styled softly and simply, her 5-foot-4-inch frame adorned by a modest black silk pantsuit. The sexy, flashy, on-stage Ann-Margret has been transformed into an angelic, soft-spoken, at-home Ann-Margret. After a few seconds of thoughtful silence, the one-time protégé of George Burns sips hot tea from an oversized mug.

“You are wondering how much longer I will continue to perform,” she says with an impish smile. “It will be as long as I feel the joy and passion. I am a Taurus and a stubborn Swede, so no amount of money could get me to go on stage if I did not want to.”

Ann-Margret Olsson spent her first six years growing up in the tiny Swedish town of Valsjobn near the Arctic Circle. Thanks to her musical mother, Anna, she memorized many local folk songs by the age of 3. The family harmonized together while Anna’s brother, Calle, accompanied them on his accordion. Ann-Margret still sings these lively childhood melodies. Violets for Mother is her favorite. “I performed that piece of music at the McCallum,” she recalls. “It is a song very close to my heart, very close to me,” she whispers, clutching a hand to her chest.

In the private quietness of her canyon home, she softly sings a few bars of the melodic Swedish lullaby in a sweet, soulful voice — “Violer till Mor …”

Roger Smith, 77 Sunset Strip heartthrob and her husband and business partner of 40-plus years, interrupts her song. Every so often, he pops into the room and then pops out as quickly. Wherever he is in the house, he never seems farther than a holler away. If Ann-Margret needs to ask him something, she projects a lilting request that resounds throughout their rambling home: “Honey!” He either appears in seconds or hollers back his reply.

The tight bond between the two is unmistakable. They have endured a lot together since they first met in 1964: the highs and lows of her career with him by her side as her manager; his ongoing battle with the rare neurological disease myasthenia gravis; and her 22-foot, nearfatal plunge off a platform high above a stage in Lake Tahoe in 1972. Standing near his wife, Roger holds a little white fluffball of a dog, Missy, named in honor of the late Barbara Stanwyck, whose nickname was Missy.

“It was Barbara who, in the late ’80s, told my friend [fashion designer] Nolan Miller that I would be perfect in the part of Ann Grenville in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. Barbara intended to play the part of Alice Grenville until she became ill, and Claudette Colbert took over her role,” Ann-Margret recalls. “We had never really officially met before then, although we both won the Golden Apple Female Star of the Year in 1983. When we finally met during the filming, she gave me a handkerchief, which I wore in a scene in the movie. It is one of my dearest treasures.”

As Roger leaves, a gray cat enters the room, turning its attention to an easy chair and using it as a scratching post. “Now, Harley, you know you aren’t supposed to do that,” Ann-Margret scolds the cat in a loving but tough stance. The cat drops to the floor, lies down, and glares at her. Giggling, Ann-Margret jumps up from her seat and disappears. She returns waving a 3-foot pole with a long string and a feather dangling from the end. The cat is entertained by her dancing about while whipping the flittering feather through the air.

Ann-Margret settles back onto the sofa laughing joyously over the playtime break and mentions Ariel, another of their cats. “Ariel was the name of my character in the two Grumpy Old Men movies starring Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon,” she explains.

Due for release this year, The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond is Ann-Margret’s second opportunity to act in a movie based on Tennessee Williams’ work. In 1983, she played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. In the new movie, based on Williams’ posthumously discovered screenplay, she portrays a lonely spinster who controls the family money. “I enjoyed acting with Ron Howard’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard,” Ann-Margret says of one of her Teardrop co-stars. “She is a terrific young actress.”

Ann-Margret also has a cameo appearance with John Travolta in Old Dogs, the sequel to Wild Hogs now in postproduction (the cast also includes Kelly Preston, Robin Williams, and Matt Damon). She recalls meeting Travolta in 1973 when he was a 19-year-old visiting her backstage after her Las Vegas show. She shapes her hands into binoculars pretending to peer at a young Travolta. “Looking into his eyes and watching his demeanor, I just knew he would be a big star one day. Since that night, he has gone on to accomplish much in his career. Roger and I saw his latest movie, Hairspray, and the first thing I thought was that it captured the spirit of one of my early movie musicals: Bye Bye Birdie [1963] with all the dance numbers and the costumes.”

Even though she didn’t have any scenes in Old Dogs with Williams, Ann-Margret received an unexpected surprise visit from him during the shoot. “I had never met Robin before,” she says. “I always admired his work. One day, he called my hotel room where I was staying near the film location and said that he and his assistant were in the lobby and wanted to say hello. I opened the door, and there he was with a bouquet of roses. He stayed about an hour; and all during that time, he was gentle, quiet, and softspoken. He was very funny, especially around my dog, Missy. He started ‘speaking dog’ with her — growling, barking, and talking. Missy was mesmerized. She had never met a person like him before. I laugh about that visit a lot.”

Ann-Margret’s life hit a high point in 1982 when King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia of Sweden presented her with the Swedish American of the Year Award in Stockholm. The king and queen traveled to Minneapolis, Minn., to catch one of her stage productions. Knowing they were coming, she rehearsed her singers and dancers over and over on the correct way to bow and curtsy before royalty. “I taught them how to do this,” she says, jumping to her feet and dramatically demonstrating the proper moves. “Well, in my excitement I broke the rules and ran right up to the king and queen, forgetting all Swedish protocol. Their security went crazy.”

When Harley strolls back into the room, Ann-Margret explains that he was named after her favorite motorcycle, the Harley-Davidson. Riding motorcycles has been a passion of hers since she was 10. A few years ago, while performing in the play Love Letters with Burt Reynolds in Los Angeles, she met a friend of Reynolds, who enjoyed the production. Soon thereafter, Ann-Margret and Roger received two Harleys as gifts from the appreciative man. Roger’s bike is a black and tan Heritage Classic. Ann-Margaret’s is a Hugger that she had custom-painted lavender with white lettering — each letter of “Harley-Davidson” surrounded by daisies. Instead of riding on the congested roads of Los Angeles, the Smiths prefer to haul their motorcycles to outof- the-way, scenic places such as Ojai to enjoy a relaxing countryside drive.

To celebrate the entertainer’s halfcentury in show business, local desert celebrity Kaye Ballard will present Ann-Margret with the Television Arts and Sciences Gold Circle Award. “Kaye Ballard has been a friend of ours for 30, 35 years,” Ann-Margret says. “She is one of the kindest, funniest, supportive ladies in the whole world. If you have Kaye Ballard for a friend, you have a friend for life.”

Ann-Margret utters a long sigh of contentment and surveys the room where every inch of every surface holds a photograph or other memento — each one triggering precious memories of her career, family, and friends.

“I am so blessed,” she says in her little-girl silky voice. “Yes, so very blessed.”

National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences luncheon honors Ann-Margret, Keely Smith, Robert Loggia, James MacArthur, Earle Hagen, Cal Ahlers, and Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman
April 20, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Renaissance Esmeralda Resort and Spa, Indian Wells
Tickets: 416-0165 or 329-6036