HER SWINGIN' '60s CREDENTIALS: This rock-em-sock-em voluptuous fireball, "the female Elvis" as she was called, starred in Bye Bye Birdie ('63), Elvis's Viva Las Vegas ('64), Kitten with a Whip ('64) and a dozen other '60s movies, plus many TV specials, Vegas shows, and record albums as the decade's most versatile performer.
CATEGORIES OF SWINGIN' CHICK: Elvis Girl, Movie Star, TV Star, and Singer
BIRTH: She was born in 1941, so she was an eager eighteen as the '60s began, and she was 22 when she portrayed a ninth-grader in Birdie! Her exotic birthplace: Sweden. Her full moniker at birth was Ann-Margret Olsson.
IMPACT ON THE '60s: Ann-Margret had a meteoric rise to international stardom, and that was stardom with staying power: She never left the spotlight until the late '70s, and even then she bounced back to become one of the century's most durable, versatile and talented entertainers of the last forty years. As evidence of her impact, when JFK celebrated his birthday in '62, he had Marilyn Monroe singing a sultry "Happy Birthday" to him, but in '63 it was Ann-Margret who performed at his private party.
CAREER IN THE '60s: She got off to a fast start in the '60s, thanks to early TV appearances, especially her performance of the song "Bachelor in Paradise" for the '62 Academy Awards in front of 40-million TV viewers. Bye Bye Birdie, with Janet Leigh as the lead, made her a household name and broke the box-office record at Radio City in '63. She might've gone even farther if she hadn't turned down Cat Ballou in '64, the part that went to Jane Fonda. Ann-Margret's Hollywood career gradually slowed by '69 as she was plagued by mediocre films, so he turned to her live Vegas shows to keep up her popularity.
CAREER OUTSIDE THE '60s: Ann-Margret's father was an electrician, and when jobs were hard to find in World War Two Sweden, he went to America without his family to find work, which he got in Fox Lake near Chicago. When he sent for his wife and daughter, they reunited in New York and celebrated by going to see the Rockettes and The Jolson Story, the first movie Ann-Margret ever saw, at Radio City Music Hall. When Ann-Margret was eleven, her father was injured and out of work for a year, forcing the family to leave their home and her mother to get a job as a secretary at a funeral home in exchange for lodging. In '55 AM went to New Trier High School near Chicago, the same school that produced Rock Hudson and Charlton Heston; she starred in school musicals, landed an agent at sixteen, and sang at local dances. She went to college Northwestern and performed with a vocal quartet called the Subtle Tones. The group got a Vegas gig, then jobs in Hollywood nightclubs, where AM was spotted, tested by studios, and signed to an RCA record contract and a seven-year deal with 20th Century Fox. After the '60s, her career revived in '71 with Carnal Knowledge and an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, then came a terrible accident in which she suffered a broken jaw and broken facial bones, plus she went comatose for four days, after falling 22 feet from a Tahoe stage. Amazing everyone, within three months she reopened in Vegas to standing ovations. Her film career bounced back in dozens of movies including Tommy with Tina Turner in '75 -- which brought AM a second Oscar nomination -- then some key TV movies, and Grumpy Old Men with Sophia Loren in '93. Throughout the '70s and '80s she continued to headline in Vegas, more beautiful than ever, and in July '99 she got her fifth Emmy nomination, this one for the TV movie about Pamela Harriman. Her candid autobiography, My Story, published in '94, became a New York Times bestseller. And she was back on stage in 2001 and 2002, this time in the rousing musical Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (she plays the madame, the Dolly Parton character in the '82 film). Here's the report from syndicated columnist Liz Smith on March 14, 2001:
"A broken arm and torn leg tendons -- just now mending after a motorcycle mishap last August -- have slowed Ann-Margret's fabled hip-twitching a bit, but as Miss Mona, the madam with the mostess in the road company of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," the flame-haired star remains something to see. A-M looks like she's movin', even when she's standing still! After seven years off stage, the in-person presence that made her Las Vegas act legendary is as vital as ever. She still tosses that eternal mane, sexily slurs those words, uses her hands and arms with grace, belts with power and croons with urgent sensuality. ... A-M closes the show with a brand-new song written just for her by the show's composer-lyricist, Carol Hall. "Whorehouse," now playing Indianapolis, is a box-office smash, and Ann-Margret is committed until early next year, crisscrossing the country in her glittery Bob Mackie gowns, cowboy hats and boots. She won't play Broadway, but with this revenue, who needs Broadway?"
Here's an item on her latest album, taken from the L.A. Times in February of 2002:
"Last summer, while performing Best Little Whorehouse in Houston,
Ann-Margret after her curtain calls adjourned to the same recording studio where the Big
Bopper cut 'Chantilly Lace.' Over several nights, she laid down vocals for her first album
of gospel songs. God Is Love: The Gospel Sessions was released last fall on Art
Greenhaw Records, a tiny custom label out of Mesquite, Texas. Sales have been scant, says
owner Greenhaw, but the album has been nominated for a Grammy and a Dove Award, the
highest honor in the Christian music industry."
TALENT: In this category, she's the definition of the well-rounded star: She played sexy/dramatic/comic/musical roles, she danced, headlined in Vegas in '67 in a big splashy five-week engagement at the Riviera Hotel, and her '60s recordings covered jazz, country, and Broadway. She also made two tours of Vietnam with Bob Hope. In addition to her two Oscar nominations for Carnal Knowledge and Tommy, she won five Golden Globes and got four Emmy nominations. In Viva Las Vegas she does the best duets any actress ever did with Elvis, especially the spunky, witty "The Lady Loves Me," which ends with her pushing Elvis off the high-diving board into the pool!
HER '60s LOOK: Ann-Margret flashed big hair that had a suitably reckless style. She was actually brunette until she dyed it orange for the film State Fair in '62. She went blonde for Kitten with a Whip, and her fiery hair matched her "kitten with a pout" face, giving her the kind of irresistable allure that made every man want her and made every man think she wanted him. As for her figure: Oooo la la. Black tights for Elvis in Vegas, a clingy bathing suit poolside, spangles for the stage, with eye-popping curves in all the right places. In '63's Movie Life Yearbook her stats were given as 5' 5" and 112 pounds, 34--23--34. Supposedly the director of Viva Las Vegas was so taken with her figure, he had the cameraman shoot a four-minute closeup of her behind, footage that wasn't shown in public. So sexy was she, when Playboy announced its list of the "100 Sexiest Stars of the Century" in the January '99 issue, they put Ann-Margret up in the elite at #13, right between Kim Basinger and Anita Ekberg (in fact, two-dozen of our Swingin' Chicks of the '60s made the Playboy list, including Jayne Mansfield at #2, Elizabeth Taylor at #7, and Julie Newmar at #88.
LIFESTYLE: Supposedly she was romantically linked to Johnny Carson, Eddie Fisher, Steve McQueen, and Elvis. It was with the King, whom she met on the set of Viva Las Vegas, that she got the most attention. Their pairing was so hot, the chemistry so obvious, that when the studio released a publicity shot for the movie that showed them getting married, the fan magazines jumped all over the rumors that the couple really was married. While in Vegas together they supposedly hid out in the Sahara for a weekend, only opening the door for room service. One story has Elvis's Memphis Mafia getting so concerned they slipped burning newspapers under their door, hoping the smoke would drive them out. She wrote in her autobiography that when she and Elvis met in '63, they simultaneously said the same words to each other: "I've heard a lot about you"; later she writes:
"We both shared a devil within .... at heart Elvis was no saint or king but rather a kid .... we were indeed soul mates, shy on the outside, but unbridled within .... his wish was that we could stay together, but of course we both knew that was impossible .... we talked about marriage ... but we were never engaged."
The story is that Elvis broke up with her in '64 after a year of dating, possibly because he was focusing on Priscilla, who had just graduated high school, and possibly because he and Ann-Margret each had too many career commitments that kept them separated. One of the presents she kept from Elvis was her bed, which was round and pink. Singer Bobby Darin once said about her: "Elvis Presley confided in me soon after he did Viva Las Vegas with Ann-Margret that he was considering marrying her. I'm not implying that anything untoward ever occurred between them, but they had a marvelous chemistry." Throughout her career Elvis always sent a huge bouquet of flowers in the shape of a guitar whenever she opened a new live show. His nickname for her was "Rusty," the name of her character in Viva Las Vegas. After Elvis, she hooked up with older actor Roger "77 Sunset Strip" Smith in San Francisco on the set of Once a Thief, and after a three-year courtship they married in Vegas in '67, a week after Elvis married Priscilla. When she and Roger Smith married, they moved into the Hollywood house formerly owned by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Roger later became his wife's manager, and when he got a rare degenerative nerve disease that left him bed-ridden, AM halted her career for two years to take care of him. However, in '72, after she'd been married to Roger Smith for five years, Elvis supposedly confessed to her that he still carried a torch for her. After Elvis died in '77, Ann-Margret admitted that she would "never recover from Elvis's death; he is a part of me ... and that will never go away." In February of 2002 she told the L.A. Times why she and Roger have always worked so closely together: "I could not have a relationship if I would be apart from the person. So many people say, 'How does it work, being together night and day?' It works and we don't analyze it."
EXTRAS: She made the cover of Life magazine, January 11, 1963 and again in '71 ... the name of Elvis's character in the movie she shared with him: Lucky Jackson ... she loves to ride motorcycles, especially Harleys ... a motorcycle accident in August 2000 cost her broken ribs, but she still made the appearance she was scheduled for that same week ... she was the voice of Ann-Magrock on "The Flintstones" in '60, other characters parodied on "The Flintstones" include Cary Granite, Perry Masonry, Stony Curtis, and TV host Ed Sullystone ... in '62 she almost got the starring role in the movie version of Gypsy, but the part went to another Swingin' Chick of the '60s, Natalie Wood ... once when Ann-Margret was on "The Tonight Show," her shawl fell off from around her shoulders, revealing a gown cut so low the audience gasped, thinking she was actually topless, and Johnny did one of his classic double-takes ... comedian Paul Lynde, co-star on Birdie, once said about her: "Off the screen, she is shy, or professes to be, and she speaks in such a low voice that you have to strain your ears and neck to try and hear whatever she's whispering" ... Ann-Margret offered one last comment about her life to the L.A. Times in February of 2002: "I never look into the future or back. As someone who has had a lot of accidents and gone through some things, I just want to live right now. I feel really blessed" ... she has her own official Web site: Ann Margret's Web Site.