ANN-MARGRET: An Amazing Career, But She Won’t Boast About It
Now 78, the timeless beauty on her life, loves and career as she is honored as a living Legend. She still acts and sings, and enjoys very special attention from America’s grateful veterans, whom she calls, “her gentlemen.” BONUS: How she got her name and chose her signature red hair color.
Ann-Margret was honored with The Legend Award for Lifetime Achievement and Contributions to Society, by the Los Angeles Press Club at the 12th National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Awards, Dec. 1, 2019. A version of this article that appeared in the awards program has been expanded here.
Ann-Margret was interviewed on-stage after receiving the Legend Award by George Pennacchio of KABC7 in Los Angeles.
If Ann-Margret’s half a century of accomplishments as an actress, singer, dancer, sex symbol, wife, friend, step-mom, and inspiration to U.S. service members has made her a global icon, you won’t hear the lady brag about her accomplishments.
Sitting in the grand living room of her Los Angeles estate, Hedgerow, in a Cape Cod-style house, surrounded by ten acres nestled into Benedict Canyon, Ann-Margret (Olsson Smith) shared a few memories in a room filled with statues, awards, beautiful art and memento’s, many of which were gifts.
In her 78th year, Ann-Margret retains a timeless beauty - as well as her natural shyness. “Like all Swedes I was raised to be intensely modest,” she explained in her 1994 autobiography, “Ann-Margaret, My Story.”
She may be a Hollywood star, but she doesn’t acts like it. During her 50-year marriage to Roger Smith, until his death in 2017, the couple rarely attended Hollywood parties and premieres, unless promoting a new project or favorite charity. And she has been that way her entire career. Years ago, columnist Hedda Hopper dubbed her “Hollywood’s New Garbo.”
“She’s not boastful,” says her friend of over 25 years, and fellow Swedish-born movie star, Maude Adams. “She’s had this amazing career and yet she wouldn’t talk about it. She’s very respectful to the people she has worked with. She is very private.”
“I knew all about the Ann-Margret mystique,” A-M wrote. ”I was said to be a recluse, a fragile woman consumed by fear, a tragic heroine controlled by a strong husband. I was an enigma to many people, including those closest to me and sometimes even to myself.”
She was glad to let Smith handle the business while she focused on her art. But how could a shy woman could go on camera or the stage and perform brilliantly over many decades?
“I just become a different person on stage,” she said. “Before I perform, I’m like this,” she growls as she shows that her heart is beating wildly. “And then I go on and maybe by ten minutes in I’m alright and I’m having a great time. I’m having a ball.”
With Jack Nicholson in Carnal Knowledge
Audiences all over the world have been having a ball as well from her movies such as “Viva Las Vegas” with Elvis, “Carnal Knowledge,” and “Grumpy Old Men,” or her TV specials, legendary Las Vegas shows and more than 50 albums. That is why the Los Angeles Press Club presented her the Legend Award for Lifetime Achievement and Contributions to Society at the 12th National Arts and Entertainment Journalism Awards on Dec. 1, in Los Angeles.
``Since she first blew fans away with her singing and dancing in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ to her more recent work on Ray Donovan and ‘The Kominsky Method,’ Ann-Margret has defined Hollywood glamour and stardom for generations of fans,'' said LAPC President Chris Palmeri. ``Her spirit and joie de vivre leaps from the screen. That's why the Los Angeles Press Club is honored to present this award to a true industry legend. As Elvis, her co-star in ‘Viva Las Vegas’ might say, ‘Viva Ann-Margret!’''
She has been nominated and won many awards, including three Golden Globes, two Emmys and two Oscar nominations, but one meaningful for her personally was presented last month in Washington, D.C.
She received the first Bob Hope Legacy Award for her longtime support of service members, and USO tours.
“For many Americans who came of age during the Vietnam era, Ann-Margret’s support of American troops is as well-known as her storied career,” reads a recent post on USO.org. “She toured three times with the USO, twice traveling with the organization to Southeast Asia to perform for American service members. To this day, those who saw her performances in Vietnam tell her how much it meant to them when they were stationed in the middle of a jungle, an ocean away from home.”
“Through her six decades of entertaining service members no matter the location or distance, Ann-Margret has demonstrated a deep appreciation for our troops,” said Dr. JD Couch, USO President & CEO. “That is why we were honored to present the first-ever USO Bob Hope Legacy Award to Ann Margret at last weeks backstage at the USO event in Washington, D.C. The award pays homage to Bob’s incomparable legacy and recognizes an individual who share in his spirit of patriotism.”
Accepting the first Bob Hope Legacy Award from the USO in Washington, DC in Nov. 2019
Ann-Margret calls the service members who have become part of the fabric of her career and life “my gentleman.”
“I’ve been to a couple of her events in Las Vegas and she was always calling out the veterans and they cheer on in the audience,” says Adams. “Many of them show up for her. She has tremendous respect among the veterans for her devotion to them.”
While she has remained the epitome of class, her life has not always been easy. Ann-Margret has dealt with alcoholism, infertility, the loss of her beloved parents and suffered a number of injuries over the years. Her worst was in 1972 when she fell 22 feet off a platform during an elaborate night club show in Lake Tahoe – bruising her face and leaving her in a coma. Her jaw was broken in two places, her left arm broken and a gash on her knee so severe doctors worried she wouldn’t dance again – if she survived.
Showing her determination not just to live but to regain her life, only five months later Ann-Margret was back on stage in Las Vegas performing once again, only this time without opening on a 22-foot-high platform.
In Ken Russell's "Tommy"
While making the movie “Tommy” for British director Ken Russell, Ann-Margret had another serious accident. She still has the scars to show for it.
“I had to throw a champagne bottle into a television set,” she recalled. “They had taken all the glass away from the floor, but they forgot to take it away from the TV set. There were three cameras and Ken was on one camera and kept shouting during it and the music was blasting and soap suds were coming closer, closer, closer. And then there was pink coming up from the soap suds. Oh dear. That was about 65 stitches. Yeah, that was interesting.”
Another daunting challenge was a devastating illness that stuck her husband, who was also her manager and best friend, beginning in 1980. Once the handsome hero of the 50s TV hit, “77 Sunset Strip,” Smith suffered with a neuromuscular disease, myasthenia gravis, for four decades. He later also contacted Parkinson’s disease, and through it all his wife was at his side.
In his final years, Ann-Margret turned down career opportunities to be with her husband, even passing on a chance to star in a TV series, said her manager Alan Margulies.
In happier times with her husband of 50 years, Roger Smith, who starred in the classic TV series "77 Sunset Strip," and later became his wife's manager. They shared a passion for riding motorcycles,
In 2017, their children (she was stop-mom to his three kids) and grandchildren threw a 50th anniversary party at Hedgerow. As the song “Got A Lot Of Livin’ To Do,” from “Bye Bye Birdie” played, a “flash mob” led by their daughter, granddaughters, family and friends, and about 50 other revelers, entered singing and dancing.
“Roger was smiling,” recalls A-M. “He had tears coming down his face. It was unbelievable, a wonderful, lovely, warm, happy experience. That was May 8th and then on June 4th he passed away.”
She endured, she says, because of the love for her husband, and her deep spirituality and belief in an afterlife.
“I've said this many times,” says A-M. “If I thought that I would never see my mother or father or Roger again, that would be it. I couldn't handle. But I do know that I’m going to see them.”
What we know is that this legend’s legacy will live on in movies, TV shows and music for generations to come.
BONUS NEWS INSIGHTS
HOW ANN-MARGRET GOT HER NAME
She was born Ann Margaret Ollson. However, when she came to Hollywood at age 17, she was worried about her conservative Swedish parents, with whom she had a deep and lasting connection.
“Before I went to Los Angeles,” recalls Ann-Margret, “I wanted to drop my last name so that if there was any bad press about me, they wouldn’t find out. It’s exactly just that, pure and simple.”
Later, she changed it to Ann Margret Smith after she married Roger Smith, her husband of 50 years until his death in 2017.
When she first came to Hollywood in her late teens
HOW SHE GOT HER FAMOUS FLAMING RED HAIR COLOR
A natural brunette, A-M recalled that she changed her hair color several times before deciding it was her destiny to be a red head. She credits her choice to Sydney Guilaroff (pronounced GIL-er-ahf), who was MGM’s chief hair stylist, who the New York Times called, “Hollywood’s most creative and celebrated hairstylist” in his obituary in 1997 when he died at age 89,
He was the hair stylist of choice for over 40 years, shaping the look of stars including Greta Garbo, Greer Garson, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Hedy Lamarr, Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Lena Horne, Grace Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Kathryn Grayson and Marilyn Monroe. Many of them also consider him a confidant.
“Ah, he was great,” A-M said with enthusiasm, then reeling off the history of her hair color choices leading up to her signature scarlet mane.”
On the cover of her 1994 autobiography
I did “A Pocketful of Miracles” and they lightened my hair up to an Auburn, and then I did “State Fair,” They lightened it up again. Then for “Bye Bye Birdie,” (1963) Mr. (George) Sidney (the director) wanted it to be a redhead. Then I went to a brunette again.”
About six months later she was called back to do reshoots at MGM on “Birdie,” and once again Guilaroff turned her into a redhead. “And then I stayed red,” she added.. “I feel good as a redhead.”
CORRECTION: ANN0MARGRET's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.