I LOVE PERFORMING. I ALWAYS HAVE, SINCE I WAS 4 YEARS OLD. Ann-Margret
Time was, our Hollywood stars—”entertainers,” as they were then called—could do it all: belt out a ballad, tap across a stage, emcee a parade, and christen your clipper ship. In her more than 50-year career, Ann-Margret has done it all, and more. But as her slew of nominations and awards attest (including two Oscar nominations, two Grammy nods, five Golden Globe trophies, an Emmy award, among others), the actress, singer, and dancer was never just jazz hands and a pretty face. She was—she still is—a redheaded, red-blooded national treasure.
Born in Sweden in 1941, Ann-Margret Olsson and her mother moved to Illinois in 1946 to join her father, an electrician who had immigrated to the U.S. a few years earlier to find work. While still in high school, Ann-Margret had already gained experience singing with a band and recording an album. By the time she was 19, comedian George Burns cast her in his Christmas show at the Sahara in Vegas, which led to a record contract with RCA and a film contract with 20th Century Fox. After appearing in Frank Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles in 1961, alongside Bette Davis, Ann-Margret began to really turn heads in Hollywood the following year with her role in the remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s State Fair, which showed off her singing and dancing abilities as well as her new image as a redheaded bombshell. But it was her breakout performance in George Sidney’s film adaptation of the musical comedy Bye Bye Birdie in 1963 that catapulted her to major movie stardom. (Viewers of Mad Men were reminded of—or shown for the first time—Ann-Margret’s power to captivate, when Sterling Cooper’s creative team watched with rapt attention the famous scene in which Ann-Margret’s very mature-looking teenybopper character ebulliently belts out the film’s title song.) Sidney directed her again in 1964’s Viva Las Vegas—considered one of Elvis Presley’s best movies; the musical is notable for the onscreen chemistry between the star and Ann-Margret, and for the offscreen romance between them that it ignited.
When Ann-Margret’s film career slowed down in the late ’60s, she began to build a reputation on TV and in Las Vegas, where her powerhouse stage productions earned her the title Queen of Vegas. As a television star, Ann-Margret was immortalized in cartoon form, turning up as Ann-Margrock on The Flintstones in 1963. In the late ’60s, she perfected the fine art of the kooky variety show with two CBS specials; and beginning in the early ’80s, she appeared in a number of TV dramas, such as Who Will Love My Children? (1983) and The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987).
Known for her unbridled intensity as a performer (one need only revisit her soap-suds-baked-beans-and-chocolate dance in 1975’s Tommy to witness her special brand of onscreen abandon), Ann-Margret is undeniably one of Hollywood’s most enduring sex symbols—just ask Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, whose characters in Grumpy Old Men (1993) would have happily thrown away everything for their ginger flame. Still, despite having forged an identity that split sweet and wild (a “kitten with a whip,” to use the title of a 1964 B-movie in which she starred), Ann-Margret went to great lengths to show that there was more to her than sex appeal, something amply evidenced by her forays into gospel music and serious, award-winning films like Mike Nichols’s Carnal Knowledge, in 1971, for which she received her first Oscar nomination.
Now, at 73, Ann-Margret continues to shine. She recently signed on for a recurring role on Showtime’s Ray Donovan, opposite Liev Schreiber and Jon Voight, playing an aging Hollywood star—a part she knows something about. Fellow Hollywood veteran and old friend George Hamilton recently visited her at her Beverly Hills home, which she shares with her husband of 47 years (and longtime manager), Roger Smith. The two stars chatted about their illustrious careers and what it means to age gracefully in Hollywood.
ANN-MARGRET: How are you doing? You’re okay?
GEORGE HAMILTON: I’m going through very big changes in my life. I’ve come to the end of that kind of character I created years ago. I loved it because it was a character that you don’t know if it’s you or not, because you played it for so long. When change happens—big change—you have fear. But if you look back on those changes, they’re the things that made the best sense in your life. And that’s the gift. And this is, right now, very scary—to be 74 facing that.
HAMILTON: Yes, growth, exactly.
ANN-MARGRET: It’s scary.
HAMILTON: It’s scary, but it’s the kind of thing that if you get it, you realize your soul and your mind somehow meet, and you get a glimpse of what you really should be doing, the important things. I feel like it’s a privilege to be this age and a privilege to be able to do all this, and to have lived on. I’m happy to take the ride.
ANN-MARGRET: Good for you. It doesn’t matter what age you get it. Are you married right now?
HAMILTON: No, I haven’t been married since 1976 or ’78.
ANN-MARGRET: Oh. [laughs]. How many children do you have?
HAMILTON: I have two—one who’s 39 and one who’s 14. You see, you’re already interviewing me! [laughs]
ANN-MARGRET: I just naturally do it, because I always want to hear about someone else. Well, I started working when I was 16 years old, singing with bands. I was 17 when I went to Kansas City, Missouri, with the Danny Ferguson band. And, of course, mother was with me. You remember my mother?
HAMILTON: Yes, I do. I saw a picture of one of those dances you were doing with your father. Could it have been the twist?
ANN-MARGRET: No, I was doing the hambo.
HAMILTON: That’s the Swedish dance.
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, Daddy was a terrific dancer. I danced with Daddy starting probably at 6 or 7.
HAMILTON: You came from a very small town in Sweden, like, 130 people.
ANN-MARGRET: When mother and I left, there were 160 residents. During World War II, Daddy had come to America to look for work. I was 8 months old. He didn’t want us to cross the ocean; it was just too dangerous. So we stayed in Valsjöbyn and he was in Chicago. He was an electrician.
HAMILTON: So you’re in Scandinavia; the Germans weren’t very far away during the Second World War.
ANN-MARGRET: Well, we were 10 minutes away from Norway.
HAMILTON: They occupied Norway.
ANN-MARGRET: Yes. I remember seeing the planes over our village.
HAMILTON: That’s fascinating to me. We’ve seen a lot of things happen in America that changed it so enormously. I know you’re very patriotic. I didn’t—and you did—go to Vietnam.
HAMILTON: I had a very different situation. I was going with the daughter of the president [Lynda Bird Johnson] at the time. It was a very interesting period.
ANN-MARGRET: I received sheets of paper that had 3,000 signatures of our guys wanting me to come over there. I went in 1966. It was just Johnny Rivers and the bassist and drummer and me. We went everywhere. And then in ’68 it was the Bob Hope Christmas show, and there were 85 people. So it was different feeling.
HAMILTON: At the Whisky a Go Go, Johnny was extraordinary, and he ushered in a whole era.
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, yes.
[JACK NICHOLSON] WAS so WONDERFUL WITH ME. WE HAD a SCENE WHERE I WAS CRYING AND HE WAS SHOUTING and SCREAMING. HE always MADE SURE I WAS OKAY, and THen he would end up going HOME with LARYNGITIS FROM ALL THE SCREAMING.THAT’S THE KIND of GUY HE WAS. Ann-Margret
HAMILTON: Singlehandedly. [sings] “Help me find a party that tried to get in touch with me.” I remember that so well. I remember one night being in the Whisky a Go Go with Jim Morrison, who became ill upon his own shoes, and I tried to help him out. At that time it didn’t mean anything, but in retrospect he was kind of a huge icon.
ANN-MARGRET: He was in a different place.
HAMILTON: But I remember the moment everybody knew in Hollywood that you were a major star. That was the moment on the Academy Awards night, I think it was ’60—
HAMILTON: You were singing “Bachelor in Paradise.” You’re a wonderful lady and you have an amazing sense of decorum, and on the other hand, there’s this absolute amazing energy that comes through when you perform.
ANN-MARGRET: I’m always a different person when I get up and perform, because then I don’t have to be nervous. I don’t have to be myself.
HAMILTON: Yes, I watched you many times.
ANN-MARGRET: You know all my steps?
HAMILTON: No, but I’m learning. I think Tina Turner’s still trying to learn some of yours. When I saw you with Tina Turner [on Ann-Margret Olsson, 1975, on which they performed “Nutbush City Limits,” “Honky Tonk Women,” and “Proud Mary” together] … Now, Tina Turner is the epitome of raw energy—
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, she’s great. I’d always been an admirer of hers. She is such a talent. I’d always go and see her shows, and she would always come to see mine. We shot that in London. She was having trouble with Ike, and I remember that she came there and didn’t really have any of her own clothes. She is wearing my pants and a T-shirt that we found in wardrobe. I had such a great time with her. We just laughed and laughed. She is certainly one of a kind.
HAMILTON: The thing I see in you is this amazing ability to be this person who I couldn’t be on film. I could be a character perhaps-
ANN-MARGRET: But you played Hank [Williams in Your Cheatin’ Heart, 1964].
HAMILTON: Yeah, I played Zorro [Zorro, The Gay Blade, 1981] and Dracula [Love at First Bite, 1979] and all sorts of different people. There was some energy that came to you that nobody else had—that just electrified people. The night when you sang on the Academy Awards, that was an amazing evening.
ANN-MARGRET: Thank you. I found out six months before the Academy Awards that I was going to do “Bachelor in Paradise,” one of the nominated songs. At the time I had done Pocketful of Miracles and just finished State Fair, and I was on a publicity tour for that. In the hotel room, whatever city, I would rehearse it. I went, “Oh, I got to remember the lyrics, I got to remember.” By the time the Academy Awards came, I was just ice. And wouldn’t you know, I was in the wings ready to go on to do that number—Shelley Winters and Vince Edwards were presenting—and what’s the name of the man who was the imposter? [Stan Berman, the self-styled “world’s greatest gatecrasher,” who made his way to the podium to present Bob Hope with a fake award]. They said a name and this man comes up right before I was supposed to come on.
HAMILTON: So it kind of threw you before you were to go on.
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, I was hanging on to the curtains.
HAMILTON: Whatever happened, I remember it as clear as anything, because it’s rare that you have those moments where everyone says, “Yeah, that’s it.” How did you learn harmony? Was it from the time you were a kid?
ANN-MARGRET: Mother and I used to harmonize all the Swedish songs. I can always hear the harmony. And with Andy Williams [in 1962], we had such a great time harmonizing; he was perfect at it.
HAMILTON: I knew Andy well. He was such an easygoing, relaxed performer.
ANN-MARGRET: And I am so happy that I learned how to read music, because going over to London to do Tommy, I had the sheet music, and I learned all the songs.
HAMILTON: How was the experience of shooting Tommy?
ANN-MARGRET: I certainly learned a lot. I was there for four months. Sometimes we worked seven days a week, shooting around London. Ken Russell was wonderful to me. I’d heard all these things about how he’d yell and scream at people, but I found him to be a very nice, normal person. He always had the music blasting, which was fantastic. For the scenes with all of the baked beans and the bubbles, there were actually three cameras on me, and Ken would be on the middle camera. He kept shouting, “Closer! Closer!” In the scene, I’m just going crazy and whacking my way through these bubbles, and then suddenly I hit something. They had taken away all of the glass and the props, but they had forgotten about the glass in the TV set. So I hit that with a thud, and then I start to see pink appearing in the soap bubbles, which resulted in 27 stitches. Then the Lycra catsuit that I was wearing started shrinking, and I had all this blood on me. My hair is wet, my mascara is running … They threw a blanket over me and took me to the hospital. The doctor didn’t speak a lot of English—we were at a hospital in an industrial area of London—and he just looked at me like I was an insane person. I had to be back on set the next day, but they just filmed me with my arm under a desk so they couldn’t see the stitches. Ken ended up giving me a few days off after that, so me and my husband took our children on a trip to Mykonos for a few days, which was lovely.
HAMILTON: You were able to transition from being thought of as a sex symbol to being considered a serious dramatic actress. It seems as though Carnal Knowledge was the film that really did that for you.
ANN-MARGRET: Well, I remember reading the script and knowing that I had to do it and thinking about the place I’d need to get to in order to do that part right, which was reaching way, way down. It was quite an experience. I actually had nightmares.
HAMILTON: Were you surprised by the reaction to that film?
ANN-MARGRET: Oh yes. I was surprised … and so grateful. You know, my father had never seen the movie. He was very proud that I had gotten such praise for my acting, but he never saw it. I’m an only child—his little girl—and he just couldn’t see it. It would have been upsetting for him.
HAMILTON: And what are your memories of working with Jack Nicholson on that film?
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, he was so wonderful with me. We had a scene where I was crying and he was shouting and screaming. He always made sure I was okay, and then he would end up going home with laryngitis from all the screaming. That’s the kind of guy he was. I ended up doing Tommy with him too.
HAMILTON: You’re also renowned for your dancing. There’s a story about one time you were not feeling well and you didn’t think you were going to get through a song, and you said to the audience, in effect, “Look, I’m not feeling very well. I need to rest.” And your gypsies [dancers] formed around you, took you offstage, and you came back and did the number and finished the show. Am I right?
ANN-MARGRET: It was in San Francisco, a matinee show [in 2001], and all of a sudden I got really sick. I don’t know what it was. Yes, I went offstage, and one of my backup singers had, I guess it was potassium.
HAMILTON: Yeah, electrolytes.
ANN-MARGRET: Yeah, so I drank it with water, and then after a couple minutes I went back on stage.
HAMILTON: Well, a lot of people would have called it a day then.
ANN-MARGRET: There was a number we did, “Thank God I’m a Country Girl,” with lots of energy, lots of stamina. We had an orchestra and everything, and all of a sudden I realized that the sound wasn’t right. So I said, “Stop, stop, stop! I want you guys to hear this and see this choreography.” My poor guys, it was the hardest dance—
HAMILTON: From the top …
ANN-MARGRET: [laughs] And I just started over again. They were so great.
HAMILTON: There are very few people who have the depth and length and breadth of a career, who have highs and lows, and still come out winning. A lot of sad endings, and very few people who really have the ability to enjoy it and choose. You’re very choosy about what you do
MY FATHER HAD NEVER SEEN [CARNAL KNOWLEDGE]. HE WAS VERY PROUD that I HAD GOTTEN SUCH PRAISE FOR MY ACTING, but HE JUST COULDN’T SEE IT. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN UPSETTING FOR HIM. Ann-Margret
ANN-MARGRET: Well, I love performing. I always have, since I was four years old.
HAMILTON: But you’re contemporary now with Ray Donovan. My God, I saw Jon Voight the other night.
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, really?
HAMILTON: I saw him at dinner. Lovely guy, and what a resurgence. Ray Donovan is just amazing. How did you enjoy that?
ANN-MARGRET: Oh, it was really interesting. Both of my scenes were with Liev Schreiber, and I enjoyed it very much. My character, however, a lot of people are not going to like.
HAMILTON: What’s she like?
ANN-MARGRET: I’m not going to tell you.
HAMILTON: [laughs] Okay, give me a hint. Is it a nice person?
ANN-MARGRET: In many ways, yes, but …
HAMILTON: She has justification for what she does, in her own mind.
ANN-MARGRET: In her own mind, but that’s it.
HAMILTON: I think that’s all one has to do. You have a responsibility to give reasons to why a person does it. People relate to the worst heavies in the world.
ANN-MARGRET: For a year now, I haven’t worked except for Ray Donovan, which Roger wanted me to do. And it’s here in L.A. But I kept saying no, no, no, no to everything else because I’m taking care of him. And it makes me happy. If you’re a spouse, if one of you has a broken wing, the other takes over. Very simple, actually.
HAMILTON: But it’s simple for a person who has those morals and that background. But people leave people in times of stress because they feel fear for themselves, not so much for the other person. And it’s amazing how you work through these challenges and how it makes you a stronger person.
ANN-MARGRET: Well, let me tell you, my mother was the strongest person I’ve ever known.
HAMILTON: Well, my mother was very much like Auntie Mame.
ANN-MARGRET: I bet she was.
HAMILTON: She was very much, kind of, the roadshow version. But my whole life was like that. We were never poor, we were broke. She said being poor is a mentality; being broke is just a temporary situation. She went through life never really worrying about it.
ANN-MARGRET: Can you believe we’re still here? I thought for some reason that I would be gone by 39.
HAMILTON: Why did you think that?
ANN-MARGRET: I have no idea. So I did what I thought was a farewell tour for three weeks in 1971. Nobody knew.
HAMILTON: You did your own farewell tour? You thought it was over?
ANN-MARGRET: I thought, “Well, that’s it. I’m leaving the industry.” But then I was retired for a year, in my mind, and then I said, “Honey, I don’t think I want to be retired. I’d like to go on stage again.”
HAMILTON: So you’re a lifer. You’re in for it. You’ve been in it since you were a kid. Amazing though, that you two have this incredible relationship. The two of you are one person, it seems.
ANN-MARGRET: You know, I feel so blessed. The fact that I’ve got so many friends who are just so honest and so loyal and forgiving and still care.
HAMILTON: But you do that, don’t you? People respond to something.
ANN-MARGRET: If Roger and I make it to next Thursday, we’ll have been married 47 years. [laughs] But there might be a spat … One never knows.
HAMILTON: Well, you got through your birthday, now you just have the anniversary. Forty-seven years, my God. I think I was married four years. [laughs]
ANN-MARGRET: But you were friends.
HAMILTON: Yes, and I knew that the only way I could have that friendship was to let the marriage go and not have conditions on it. And I came back as a friend and—
ANN-MARGRET: It was much better?
I THOUGHT, ‘WELL, THAT’S IT. I’M LEAVING the INDUSTRY.’ BUT THEN I WAS RETIRED FOR a YEAR, IN MY MIND, AND then I SAID, ‘HONEY, I DON’T THINK I WANT TO BE RETIRED. I’D LIKE TO GO ON STAGE AGAIN.’ Ann-Margret
HAMILTON: Well, it is, because you can’t own people, and sometimes the music’s gone and it’s not about passion; it’s about the complicity that you have. I found that if I let her go and she let me go, we would vector home, we’d come back. And as long as that was okay … Maybe there was a fear of commitment on my behalf. I committed to children; I just couldn’t commit to a wife. I don’t think I trusted the wife enough, where with a child, you don’t have anything about trust. They’re flying alongside you, and you better make sure they’re okay, or you’d have a horrible life. You have three children, correct?
ANN-MARGRET: Stepchildren, yes.
HAMILTON: And you tried to get pregnant for a long time?
HAMILTON: Then you finally said, “I’ve had it with this hormone-induced situation,” and you gave it up.
HAMILTON: But the three children, you’ve taken them on as your own, right?
ANN-MARGRET: The wicked stepmother of the west.
HAMILTON: Are you a disciplinarian? Are they infused with Scandinavian values?
ANN-MARGRET: [laughs] Yes.
HAMILTON: What in your early life that your mother and your father infused in you have you brought to your stepchildren?
ANN-MARGRET: Respect. I met them when they were 3, 6, and 7, and now they’re not. [laughs] Two of them are doctors. Well, I don’t want to get into that because it’s very, very private.
ANN-MARGRET: We’ve kept the children really—
HAMILTON: Out of it.
ANN-MARGRET: Yes. For their sake.
HAMILTON: It’s interesting, my little boy has great respect. He’s 14 and he says sir and ma’am. Stands and shakes your hand. I love that, don’t you?
ANN-MARGRET: Yes, yes.
HAMILTON: I saw somewhere you said “Mr. Burns” [to George Burns].
ANN-MARGRET: Always. And “Mr. Sidney.” Bless his soul, George Sidney.
HAMILTON: You did a few movies with him.
ANN-MARGRET: I was in Bye Bye Birdie, Viva Las Vegas, and The Swinger .
HAMILTON: So you have respect for the directors.
ANN-MARGRET: When I came to this country, first of all, mother and I didn’t know English. I would curtsey, then say, “Thank you,” and then when I was leaving, curtsey. For example, we went to Dallas to introduce a film I did with John Wayne [The Train Robbers, 1973]. And I never called him Duke. I just couldn’t. That’s the way I was raised. When you meet someone, you say either Mr. or Mrs. or Miss. You stand up. I think you were taught the same things.
HAMILTON: Yeah, I was. I was brought up in the South. My little boy is in the naval academy, and he loves it. He loves it because he knows what to expect, he knows the consequences of his actions. He said, “I want to be something in my life.” He was offered this reality show, and he said, “Dad, that won’t help me the rest of my life. I want to be known not for fame, but for value.” That’s a 14-year-old.
ANN-MARGRET: You must be doing something right.
HAMILTON: You know, you have to get it right before they get it right sometimes. My oldest boy is a wonderful musician. He had a hit with Robbie Williams. He’s a recovering addict, and we have worked out, late, all the things that I worked out with the little one early on. And it’s what I wish I’d done up front, if I had known what Hollywood was. I went down the same road—I had him in military school, and then the military school closed and he came back to this town. And this town is too … I’m surprised I never fell into any addiction or any of that. I was lucky, because it certainly was pervasive. Well, what are you going to do next?
ANN-MARGRET: I’m just taking care of Roger.
HAMILTON: You two are always there for each other. It seems to me that you’re a lifer in that. But what about you personally? Are you just taking it a day at a time …
ANN-MARGRET: Day at a time, definitely. I just can’t believe we’re still here. So many of our colleagues have passed away.
HAMILTON: But, you know, I can’t envision myself—I can feel infirmities and stuff—but I can’t envision myself dropping off the perch. I have other things I want to do, you know?
ANN-MARGRET: You have other fish to fry.
HAMILTON: Other fish to fry.
GEORGE HAMILTON IS A FILM AND TELEVISION ACTOR AND PRODUCER WHOSE CAREER HAS SPANNED NEARLY SIX DECADES.