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Roger Smith

Sixties sex kitten a sultry senior

The sex kitten of the 1960s has just become a senior citizen.
"It's true," purrs Ann-Margret on the phone from her home in Beverly Hills, "April 28 was my 65th birthday."

And to celebrate, she's bringing a new show to Casino Rama on Thursday night, featuring an erotically charged version of "Stouthearted Men" that she performs on a motorcycle.

"Let me show you how I sing it," she volunteers, before slipping into that unmistakable voice that sounds like heated patchouli oil is oozing over the long-distance lines.

"Give me some men," she coos, "who are stout-hearted men, who will fight for the rights they adore ..."

And then a tiny yawn slips out. "I'm sorry," she says, "I just woke up and I'm still lying here in bed."

Now that's an image which several generations of men would gladly allow residence in their brains indefinitely.

Seductive but sweet, erotic yet innocent: that was Ann-Margret's trademark. The kind of girl you'd gladly bring home to meet your parents — on the condition that they left the room very shortly after.

She comes by both qualities honestly. The physical appeal she shrugs off to "good genes and a trainer who tries to kill me three times a week," but the emotional values are even more deeply rooted in her DNA.

Ann-Margret Olsson was born in Stockholm on April 28, 1941. A few months after her birth, her father moved to America to find work, so Ann-Margret and her mother relocated to the tiny town of Valsjobyn in northern Sweden and lived with her maternal grandmother.

"Grandma had a little bakery in the front of the house," she recalls, "and there were a couple of tables where people would sit to have coffee and pastries and sandwiches. Mommy and I would sing. I remember her favourite song was a lullaby called "Violets for Mother."

In 1946, the family reunited in New York, a city which dazzled the 5-year-old girl.

"Daddy took us to Radio City Music Hall. I couldn't speak a word of English so I didn't understand the film at all, but the Rockettes I could relate to. And the beautiful velvet chairs."

In 15 years, she'd be starring in movies that opened at Radio City, but back then that seemed impossible to the shy young girl.

The family settled in Chicago, where Ann-Margret took singing and dancing lessons, winning local talent shows by the age of 15. She appeared on Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, only to lose out to a man who played "Lady of Spain" on a leaf.

But then she started on a winning streak. At 19, she was backing up George Burns in Las Vegas and by age 20, she had hit records on the charts. When she was 21, she made her first film, Pocketful of Miracles.

But one night stands out in retrospect in 1962 when Ann-Margret was to appear on the telecast of the Oscars, singing a forgettable Best Song nominee called "Bachelor in Paradise."

But there was nothing negligible about her performance. Wearing a skin-tight knit sweater, she shimmied and jiggled for three non-stop minutes, earning deafening applause from the showbiz crowd and a media firestorm the next day — half of it praising her as "electric" and the other half condemning her as "salacious."

"All I remember is daddy driving me to the Oscars in his white Ford Falcon stick shift. I did my thing and then he brought me home. The next day I walked into rehearsals for an Andy Williams show and all these reporters wanted to talk to me."

That's when her career really took off. She was cast as the heroine of Bye, Bye Birdie, then came Viva Las Vegas with Elvis Presley and an assortment of other less-successful attempts to cash in her on sex appeal like Kitten With A Whip.

Her film career was in a bit of a decline when she married TV star Roger Smith in 1967, who abandoned his own career to become her manager. She shifted her focus to Las Vegas, where she was an instant success.

But then, in 1970 director Mike Nichols called her back to play a dramatic role in Carnal Knowledge, for which she earned her first Oscar nomination as the über-victim Bobbie.

"Oh boy, was that painful," she recalls of working with Nichols and Jack Nicholson.

"I'm an instinctive emotional actress and it all has to come from inside me. That movie took me down to some very dark places."

She was so depressed after it that she decided to retire from show business at the age of 30.

"Fortunately," she laughs, "I didn't tell anybody but Roger, so when I started getting bored a few weeks later, I just went back out on the road again and no one was any wiser."

But during a 1972 show at the Sahara Hotel in Lake Tahoe, it almost all ended for her.

"I was thrown off a platform that was 22 feet in the air," she recalls with a chill in her voice. "I didn't see it coming. It flipped me over and smashed the whole left side of my face."

She was back onstage performing 10 weeks later. "I guess I must have been spared for some reason," is how she sums it up.

In 1975, she got her second Oscar nomination in the film version of The Who's Tommy, and her Vegas and touring careers continued to flourish.

But then in the 1980s, her husband was stricken with the debilitating muscle disorder myasthenia gravis and much of her time was spent helping him through that ordeal.

"He's in remission now," she sighs, "and we're so grateful for that. You know, we're always being tested, but I don't believe God flings anything at us that he thinks we can't handle. Like they say, what doesn't kill you makes you strong."

Ann-Margret certainly seems as resilient as ever, with three new films being released this year and the tour that starts in Casino Rama continuing through the end of November.

Does she ever see getting off the show-business carousel she's been riding for nearly 50 years?

"No amount of money can get me onstage to do what I do," she says.

"It has to be my passion. I'm going to continue performing as long as I have that passion for it. God forbid that ever leaves me."

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By RICHARD OUZOUNIAN

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From The Toronto Star May 2, 2006

The Unofficial Home Of The Fantastic Ann-Margret |A-M Live On Stage