I'll post a series of these interviews in the next week or so. Hope you enjoy them as much as I did writing them. Last Friday I began my "Great Old Broad" series with my 1992 interview with Maureen Stapleton. On Saturday, my 1998 piece on Cloris Leachman, a 2001 interview was posted Sunday with Elizabeth Ashley and Monday, there was my 2007 piece on Elaine Stritch. Tuesday, there was my 2008 piece on Olympia Dukakis. Wednesday, a 1998 interview with Estelle Parsons and Thursday, my piece on Debbie Reynolds. Today, my interview with Ann-Margret.
By FRANK RIZZO
The last time I interviewed Ann-Margret was 31 years ago, when the young movie star was in her best biker-babe mode and I was in journalism school on my first celebrity assignment. She was sexy, sweet and kind to a bumbling student reporter who was invited to her trailer on the campus of the University of Arizona, where she was filming ``C.C. and Company'' with Joe Namath. Her husband, manager-producer Roger Smith, was nearby with clipboard in hand and, as the film's producer, otherwise engaged in the details of the film shoot.
More than three decades later, things haven't changed all that much. Here I am, being led into a dressing room at the ctnow.com Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, where Ann-Margret is rehearsing for the national tour of ``The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'' (which begins Tuesday). There is Smith, still by her side, but now engrossed in his laptop computer. And there is the actress, still soft-spoken, shy and hesitant to say a single negative, provocative or too-revealing thing about anyone or anything. When the urge arises, and she mentions a role she passed on, her first kiss or anything that discloses too much, she stops herself and zips her mouth, like a little girl with a secret too tasty -- or too scary -- to tell.
This makes interviewing the actress pleasant but frustrating. Push too hard, and you feel like a bully. Succumb to the sweetness, and you feel like a foolish fan. And besides, she looks so damned vulnerable, even with her husband, publicist and Missy, her Maltese lapdog, within emergency reach. She seemingly needs to protect herself with a honey voice, tons of feminine charm and layers of clothes. Looking like a 21st-century Garbo, she wears a black wool hat, large dark sunglasses, full-length black coat and high winter boots, as if to stave off any detailed answer to the inevitable question: ``How'd she look?''
Making her appear even more fragile, the actress, who turns 60 in April, is wearing a brace on her left wrist, which she recently broke in a fall. With metal rods that make it look like she's packing a high-tech weapon, she gleefully mock-shoots at imaginary enemies in the room. ``I've sort of gotten to like my friend here,'' she says, patting the apparatus.
As the idle talk goes on, she ever so slightly reveals herself to be a woman of contradictions and even more hyphens. She admits that she has always felt the push-pulls of being wild-yet-proper, strong-yet-vulnerable, a caregiver who needs to be taken care of, intensely private yet very much in the public eye. She is a woman who loves to ride Harleys -- festooned with daisies.
``There's a battle going on here,'' she says, touching the part of the coat where her heart is. ``You should feel the way I feel.''
Still? After all these years?
``I'm not sure. It's up for grabs.
Who does she see in the morning mirror? The sensual glamour girl wrapped in a sheet, as she is in the ads for ``Whorehouse''? Or someone else?
``Swedes are a different breed,'' she says. ``I was always taught that you don't think you are anything special 'cause there's always someone who is more special than you. Just be the best you that you can be.''
An Only Child
She was born Ann-Margret Olsson in Valsjobyn, Sweden, and came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 5, settling in Wilmette, Ill. Her father became ill, and her mother took a job as a receptionist at a funeral parlor, a job that included live-in privileges. She once recalled growing up for three years amid muffled cries of mourners and playing the piano by herself in the room where the wakes were held, sometimes with a casket nearby.
She was an only child who lived in a world of pretend. ``That's what only-children do,'' she says. But there was also a part of her that was an extrovert, and she recalls how much she would love to perform in front of her family when she was a little girl.
When she was 19, she left her freshman year at Chicago's Northwestern University with some friends in a station wagon to perform in a piano-bass-drum band, The Suttletones, at a Las Vegas hotel.
They hoped to break into the big time, and one of them did, thanks to George Burns, who happened to see the act and took the singer with the hyphenated name under his wing. His contacts in Los Angeles landed her a series of television appearances, the cover of Life magazine as Hollywood's newest starlet, and her first movie role in Frank Capra's ``A Pocketful of Miracles'' in 1961, opposite Bette Davis.
Other movies soon followed, most capitalizing on her fresh, sensual looks and giving her a series of bad-good-girl/good-bad-girl roles: ``Viva Las Vegas!,'' ``The Cincinnati Kid,'' ``The Pleasure Seekers,'' ``Bus Riley's Back in Town,'' ``The Tiger and the Pussycat'' and ``The Swinger.'' ``C.C. and Company'' was one of her last roles in what was becoming a series of B movies.
Then came the popular and critically acclaimed film ``Carnal Knowledge'' in 1971, written by Jules Feiffer and directed by Mike Nichols.
``I knew I had something to offer dramatically,'' she says. ``During my time, there weren't many of us who sang and danced and acted. They just put you in one slot. When you sing and dance, you're over here. If you're a dramatic person, you're over there, and never the twain shall meet. I'm so happy for kids today because there isn't that line anymore. But `Carnal Knowledge' was so important for me and such a big leap into the unknown. But I was so happy that I did it. That I finally did it.''
The role of Bobbie Templeton, emotionally abused girlfriend of Jack Nicholson, earned her an Oscar nomination. (She received another for ``Tommy,'' playing Nora, the pinball wizard's mother.) It also began a series of diverse parts in films (``Joseph Andrews,'' ``Grumpy Old Men,'' ``Any Given Sunday'') and television (``A Streetcar Named Desire,'' ``The Two Mrs. Grenvilles'' and the recent ``Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story.'' Along the way, she continued to sing and dance with her popular nightclub act as well as star in TV specials and variety shows.
She hasn't performed on stage for eight years, taking the time to be with her husband, who has myasthenia gravis. ``Well, he wasn't feeling so good, and we decided to take off for a while,'' she says. But with Smith's 20-year neuromuscular illness now in remission, things are back on track for more stage work.
``As my 82-year-old-going-on-40 mother would say, I'm such a ham,'' Ann-Margret says. ``I didn't realize how much I missed performing live. When you've got that performing bug, there's no way that you can tear it out. It's there. When you go out on stage and that first wave of applause comes, you just go, `Wow.'''
Back On The Boards
Though she has been doing her nightclub act for decades, ``Whorehouse,'' in which she plays Miss Mona, the loving madam of the notorious ``Chicken Ranch,'' is the first traditional musical she has done (she turned down leads in ``Sugar'' and ``King of Hearts'' in the '70s).
``This grabbed me,'' she says. ``The music is so beautiful. Also, Thommie Walsh [the show's director and choreographer] is one of my former dancers. He was one of my guys in 1973. I'm receiving so much joy from this project.''
What surprises her the most as she gets older?
``I cannot believe that I still get buzzed about life,'' she says. ``If you really care about your work and get a great deal of excitement from it, along with the nerves, it's more exciting than anything because I am a race horse behind that door. I always think that age is a natural progression, and I'm ready for it. Whatever. I'm going to be the best 85-year-old that I can be if I'm still around.''
What does she think when she sees her younger self on screen, the vivacious teen emerging from a field of blue in ``Bye Bye Birdie,'' or the girl from the wrong side of the tracks in ``Kitten with a Whip.''
``I don't know who that person is,'' she says with a bemused smile. ``Some stranger.''
What would the woman I interviewed 30 years ago think of the woman she is today?
She pauses to consider.
``She wouldn't know me,'' she says softly, seriously. ``No. Not at all.''