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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret's Still Got Game

For years, Vic Williams has been boring family and friends silly telling that story of how he danced with Ann-Margret on an aircraft carrier -- he's got the photos, 60 or 70 to prove it -- when, in 1969, he was stationed in Long Beach, Calif., and Hollywood's Swede heart was shooting a TV special on the naval base.

"She's been a favorite of mine since, but before that I'd never heard of her. I'm just a hillbilly from Arkansas," confesses Mr. Williams, a retired neon tube bender, whose sister-in-law had surprised him with Saturday night tickets to the Moon River Theater. There, A-M was crossing cadenzas and -- faithless creature -- tripping the light fantastic with some other Williams guy, this one answering to Andy. "I've seen all her movies. The John Wayne one was my favorite," Vic adds, referring to "The Train Robbers." "I can't believe she looks like she does and gets around like she does."

OK, so here's how the 63-year-old Ann-Margret looks: plenty fine. When she makes her entrance on stage in a flowing, filmy bright-yellow number, she glows like the corolla of a sunflower. And here's how she gets around: Forty years removed from competing in the pelvic Olympics with Elvis Presley, her love interest in the movie "Viva Las Vegas" (the two were a couple off-screen as well), Ann-Margret's still got game.

Watusi, Watusi. Frug, frug. Shoulder shimmy, shoulder shimmy. Applause, applause. The issue, perhaps, isn't that she does it well, as the performer notes in an interview the next morning. It's that she does it at all. "Most women performers my age retired a long time ago," says A-M, who's following up her Grammy-nominated gospel CD with a Christmas album due out in a few weeks, is featured with Jimmy Fallon and Queen Latifah in the current movie "Taxi," has song-and-dance gigs coming up in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi; Fort Collins, Colorado; and Las Vegas, and starts production on a thriller with Dennis Hopper early next year.

"I tried retiring for three weeks in 1971, after playing Bobbi in 'Carnal Knowledge,'" she says of the breakthrough role that won her the first of two Oscar nominations (the second was for "Tommy"). "I tried, and decided against it."

"I think some people come to see if I can sort of even walk. I'm not bad for 95," Ann-Margret adds with a throaty chuckle. "It's fun. I'm still hoofing."

Yup, she's still hoofing. More to the point, after all those years in show business, after countless clunkers -- among them "Bus Riley's Back in Town," "The Pleasure Seekers" and the infamous "Kitten With a Whip" -- and a 22-foot fall from a Lake Tahoe nightclub stage in 1972 that broke her jaw and several bones in her face, she's still here. If audiences and certain entertainment-industry naysayers are surprised, Ann-Margret isn't. "So many women who were very vulnerable -- they were ripped apart emotionally when they came to Hollywood, and I never wanted that to happen to me.

"It's my background, very strong. I had a very strong upbringing and a very strong support system," says A-M, who was born Ann-Margret Olsson near Stockholm, the only child of an electrician and a secretary, and moved to suburban Chicago as a pre-adolescent. "One of my first screen tests when I was like 18 was for a movie at Paramount. And they said to my then manager, 'her jaw is too strong. She'll never make it.' And I thought 'whaaaat?' But then I thought, 'You're too short, you're too tall. You're too fat, you're too thin. It doesn't mean anything." A pause. Here comes the kitten with a quip: "That's why I broke my jaw, so it wouldn't be so strong."

All this talk about strong upbringing and strong support system notwithstanding, it's been a push up the mountain for the woman "Carnal Knowledge" director Mike Nichols once called the most vulnerable human being he'd ever met. "I still have that side. Ummm. Ummm. I think I'll just leave it there," she says, then adds: "I've toughened up in certain ways. But I don't want to become a steel wall. I don't want to become that."

Ann-Margret's discomfort is palpable. She is her absolutely least-favorite subject. You want to talk about her 37-year marriage to "77 Sunset Strip" star and one-time dreamboat Roger Smith? Fine up to a point. She nods to a diamond winking on her left hand -- a starburst on steroids. "That's my engagement ring. Roger designed it. And this too," she says, indicating a ring with a stone large enough to accommodate an ice show. "I was in the hospital when he gave this to me after my accident. I said to him that diamonds were better than Darvon."

You want to talk about her three stepchildren? OK. "One's an emergency doctor, one's a psychologist, one's a film editor. All we need now is a lawyer."

You want to talk motorcycles? Well, make yourself comfortable. Currently the owner of a custom-made lavender Harley -- "It's a real girly bike" -- Ann-Margret began riding at the age of 10, when an uncle took her on a joy ride in
Norway, and got her first machine at 21, just after she signed her first movie contract.

"I was given this teeny putt-putt by this very nice gentleman, and he had no idea that I would jump from that to a Triumph 500. The studio really had something to say about that. I was not married and I was in show business and the insurance was incredible. I was riding it to work when I was making 'The Cincinnati Kid' with Steve McQueen. I was told to stop and Steve said 'oh, don't listen,'" she recalls with a roar of laughter, "as was typical of him to say."

Biking, she allows, let her take the risks -- she's got the bruises on her arms to prove it -- that for years she was reluctant to take in her career.

"Those two sides of me battle each other all the time," she says. "I have this thing about stopping -- and then vroooom."

These days, when fans come up to Ann-Margret they want to talk biking and Sweden and her husband's health. Mr. Smith, who was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis in the early 1980s and since has reportedly suffered a few strokes, is doing well, a smiling A-M replies gamely. Thanks for asking. They want to hear about George Burns, who discovered her, and who, when she abandoned her clingy old jewel-neck blue sweater and snug, well-worn black Capris for a spiffy new pants suit, said chidingly: "Annie, people don't just want to hear your voice. They want to see where your voice is coming from."

And, of course, people are eager to talk about Elvis Presley or, as A-M refers to him, E.P. Good luck, folks. Expect no clarification of the rumors that they were engaged, no amuse-bouche about their romance. "I tell people he was a great talent. I tell them," concludes the Swedish original, "that he was an American original."

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By JOANNE KAUFMAN

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