Films & TV
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Ann-Margret Olsson sailed from Sweden to America when she was five years old, arriving in New York on November 29, 1946. She and her mother Anna were met by her father Gustav Olsson, who had gone on ahead. Little could the young girl have imagined then what lay ahead.
Discovered by comedian George Burns when he was auditioning dancers for his Las Vegas show, the beautiful teenager was cast as Bette Davis' daughter in her first film. Over 50 films later, she has twice been nominated for an Oscar and won five Golden Globes.
Despite a passionate affair with Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret married Roger Smith, one of the stars of the Sixties TV series "77 Sunset Strip", who for many years has been her manager.
But her sustained success as a singer, dancer and actress, and her long, happy marriage, have been counterbalanced by a series of personal tragedies.
A fall from a stage set in Lake Tahoe in 1972 almost ended her life - and career - and led to extensive surgery to rebuild a shattered cheekbone.
A subsequent battle with alcoholism during the late Seventies was fought and won with the help and support from her devoted husband. So when Roger began suffering bouts of debilitating fatigue in the early Eighties, it was his wife who stepped into the breach and took control of the couple's demanding life.
Roger was eventually diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an incurable neuromuscular disease. "It would have been natural for me to fold then", says Ann-Margret, "and many people suspected it of me, given my dependence of Roger. But there comes a point when clothes, money and a large home mean nothing.
"Time stopped, then started in a new way. Roger and I would beat this, we decided, and I'd shield him from the worries and cares he had once assumed." She surprised even herself. "A more confident, stronger woman emerged. But then I'm a tough, stubborn Taurean".
Sitting today in that same large house in the hills, Ann-Margret at 59 is a head-turningly good-looking woman with her trademark red hair and trim, curvy figure. The decor of her Benedict Canyon mansion is a blend of Californian and northern European influences. The painted wooden furniture and oil paintings co-exist with an office that looks like a shrine to her career: movie and stage posters, and magazine covers crowd the walls.
Playing havoc all over the furniture are the latest additions to the family - three kittens newly arrived via a rescue centre to share the house with three established, rescued adult cats, and a Maltese dog, one of two Ann-Margret carried throughout her recent film with Al Pacino, "Any Given Sunday".
In the background, Roger, 66, is busy running the office that services his wife's flourishing career. To the casual observer the tall, straight-backed man looks the picture of health. But Ann-Margret knows better.
How does Roger feel today?
"He's fine as long as he doesn't get tired or stressed. Most of the time he's in remission. But if he's run down it can trigger a new attack. If I'm upset, he feels it too."
What form does the illness take?
"The nervous system controlling his muscles begins to deteriorate. The result is that he's so tired, he hasn't the strength to get out of bed. The only answer is complete rest".
Do you remember his first attack?
"As it were yesterday. Over a matter of weeks the disease followed its own erratic path. First his neck weakened and he had trouble holding his head straight. He struggled to swallow, which made it hard for him to eat. In time he couldn't draw air into his lungs and exhale without concentrating om making each fibre in each muscle work. It was very frightening.
"There were two courses of action open to doctors - treatments, not cures, - once he'd been diagnosed. He could have a blood-cleansing procedure which would also wipe out a lifetime of immunities, or the thymus gland could be surgically removed from his neck which, in some cases, results in remission".
Which did he choose?
"Neither. Miraculously, as the months passed, we noticed a strange and unexpected occurrence. Gradually, Roger's health improved. His breathing got easier. The muscles in his neck had less difficulty supporting his head. His legs felt as if they'd like to start walking properly again.
"The doctors couldn't explain why. They simply said the disease had reversed itself. Roger had gone into remission. I'll never forget him saying over breakfast one morning, 'You know something? I feel kinda good.' There was much celebrating that day. Nothing has quite equalled that moment.
Down the years, there have been occasions when he's been laid low again. But nothing as bad as the onset of the illness - yet. There is no predictable outcome. Tomorrow, the story could be different. So far we've become incredibly lucky. It's the reason I agreed to become national chairperson of the Myasthenia Gravis Society. It's my way of saying thank you."
How do you think coping with Roger's illness has changed you?
"On a practical level, when he was first diagnosed I picked up the phone and talked to the agents. I learned about the stocks, bonds and real-estate matters that Roger had always handled. I attended to the leaking roof, broken appliances and hillsides after the rains. I trudged along, worrying I was making mistakes, asking lots of questions to make sure I wasn't being taken advantage of, but slowly and surely gaining confidence. I never let Roger know the extent of my exhaustion or fear. But there were plenty of harrowing nights when I cried, sitting in my back yard in the Los Angeles hills."
You and Roger have been together for 36 years, married for 33. In an industry littered with failed marriages, how do you explain the longevity of yours?
"We've always wanted it to work. Of cours we love each other, but we like each other too. We're aware of each other's sensitivities and respect them. We're kind to one another. He's in my corner, no matter what, as I'm in his."
You weren't able to have children.
"For ten years I tried every available fertility treatment. On three occasions when I was 39 I thought I was pregnant, but it wasn't to be. I'm thankful for my blessings, though, and they include Roger's daughter and two sons from his first marriage. When they were teenagers he was granted custody of them, which meant I suddenly had an instant family. I love them all as if they were my own".
You've also been able to concentrate on your career.
"I've been lucky there, too. Mr Burns took me under his wing when I was still in high school, then at 19 I won the part of Bette Davis' daughter in 'Pocketful of Miracles'."
What was it like working with the legendary Bette Davis?
"I was scared silly, but Bette was so protective of me and taught me so much. I'll never forget our first big scene together. Frank Capra, the director, called 'Action' when Miss davis clapped her hands together. 'Stop! Stop!' she said. Everyone froze. 'Would you please get Ann-Margret's hairdresser and make-up man?' She turned to me. 'Honey', she said, 'this is your close-up and you want to look good as good as you possibly can. Understand?' I nodded. As far as I recall, I didn't have a hair out of place, but she was determined.
"Years later, just before she died, there was a benefit evening for her in L.A. I told that story to the audience, then looked up to where Miss Davis was sitting. She smiled and nodded. I don't think she'd relised the impression that experience had had on me."
From your long film career, do you have personal favourites?
"I've learned from the good ones just as much as I have from the clunkers. But yes, some inevitably stand out. The musical 'Bye Bye Birdie' in 1963 properly launched my movie career. In 1971 I made 'Carnal Knowledge' with Jack Nicholson and Candice Bergen; it won me the first of two Oscar nominations.
"My daddy never saw that film. I was his little girl. He was very proud I'd been nominated, but he couldn't bring himself to see me disrobing. Sadly, he died from cancer in 1973. But my mother is still very much alive and lives in her own apartment on our estate."
You won your second Oscar nomination for your role in 'Tommy'.
"I'll never forget that experience, not least working with director Ken Russell. He was wonderful. He sensed very early on that, if anyone yelled at me, I'd retreat int my shell. I'm from a family where no one ever shouted.
"The film was crazy. Pete Townshend had written a new song for me called 'The Day It Had Rained Champagne', which left a lasting impression on me. Literally! Soapsuds were pumped down a chute while I sang my heart out. I then had to smash a champagne bottle across a TV. The screen shattered and the shards of glass were removed from the carpet. Somebody forgot to remove the jagged edges from around the TV screen.
"When we resumed filming, Ken wanted me to thrash around hysterically as though I were suffering a breakdown. 'Closer! Closer!', he shouted over the deafening music as I got nearer the shattered TV screen. Suddenly, spots of pink appeared in the soapsuds. Then they darkened to red. I'd cut deep into my left hand. I needed 27 stitches.
"I still have the scar. I'm sure the producers were nervous that I was going to sue the film company. But that's not my style. The next day, I was back on the set, shooting another scene, my bandaged left hand hidden beneath a table. I loved that film. It took six months to shoot and it was such fun."
Three years earlier, you had an accident that almost killed yo.
"In 1972, I was performing at a nightclub in Lake Tahoe, standing on a platform 22 feet above the stage. Suddenly it tipped, wobbled, bounced and flipped upside down. All I remember is seeing the floor coming towards me.
"I was knocked unconscious, sprawled out under the fabric of my yellow chiffon dress, lying face down, crumpled and broken. In a five-hour operation, a surgeon reconstructed my shattered cheekbone, fitting the 50 small bone fragments around a tiny ball that had been coated with penicillin and stuck inside my cheek. In ten weeks, I was back performing."
For all your success, the Seventies were a testing decade.
"There was that near-fatal accident. My father died. I was injured on the set of 'Tommy'. And I was unable to have a baby. All those things contributed to my increasing reliance on alcohol. That battle lasted, on and off, for five years. I came through it in the end. I had my last drink on June 20, 1980."
Who is your favourite leading man?
"Jack Nicholson was in 'Carnal Knowledge' and 'Tommy' and we always got along fine. Such a generous man. I made three films with Walter Matthau. Oh, he was a rascal. I remember coming out of the premiere of 'Grumpy Old Men'. Walter was there with his wife and son. He walked over to me and Roger. 'You were good', he said. Then he paused. 'What did you do? Take a pill?'
"He loved to rease the heck out of me. He had such a devilish side, and yet, like Mr Burns, was so self-deprecating. It's the same with Jack. These are people who are secure. They know who they are. There's no jealousy."
Then, of course, there was Elvis.
"Ah, EP as I always called him. He was very, very private and so am I. We were so alike. He had a great sense of humour. We shared a passion for Harley Davidsons. I still have one today."
Did you know he'd become more than your co-star on 'Viva Las Vegas'?
"From the word go. We both sensed it. We felt a current, an electricity that went straight through us. It would become a force we couldn't control. The first day on the set, we discovered two things about each other. Once the music started, we couldn't stand still. We experienced music in the same way. It ignited a fiery, pent-up passion inside us. It was an odd, embarrassing, funny, inspiring sensation. We looked at each other move and saw virtual mirror images. When EP thrust out his pelvis, mine slammed forward. When his shoulder dropped, I was down there with him. When he whirled, I was already on my heel."
Did you ever consider marriage?
"We talked about it. We were so alike, so comaptible. EP didn't like strong, aggressive women and I posed no threat there. He, on the other hand, was strong, gentle, exciting and protective - just the qualities I liked. But we knew that, no matter how strong our bond, we weren't going to last. We had our careers, other committments.
"I'll never recover from his death. He is part of me, of my happiness and my sorrow. EP and I crossed paths at a time when we were young, passionate, vulnerable and idealistic. I treasure the time we were together and I feel lucky and fulfilled that we were able to sustain such a long, loving and caring friendship. It's rare to have such a friend as EP, such a soulmate."
What of the future?
"Not so long ago, I made a TV film, 'Life of the Party', based on Pamela Harriman, the woman who was married to Winston Churchill's son Randolph, and to two other powerful men. She was extraordinary - manipulative, ambitious but smart enough never to speak badly about anyone who crossed her path. I hope British audiences will be able to see it by the end of this year.
"I've also sung the title song in the Flintstones movie, 'Viva Rock Vegas', and completed 'The Last Producer', directed by and starring, my old friend Burt Reynolds. I play his pill-popping wife. Next year, I'll tour the States in 'The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas'."
Do you plan ahead?
"Not any more. Every so often I give motivational talks to recovering alcoholics or to people suffering from neuromuscular illnesses. I've come to realise that the best advice I can pass on is to encourage people to live in the here and now. It's what I do. After everything that's happened to me, my conclusion is that you should take each day as it comes. The future can look after itself.
By Richard Barber