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Roger Smith

Whether heroine or harrowing,
Ann-Margret wants to inspire

ImageCaption: Ann-Margret goes from wooing "Grumpy Old Men" in film to manipulating young teen-agers in an NBC miniseries.
By Curt Schleier / The Detroit News

Television Preview

'Seduced by Madness:

The Diane Borchardt Story'

9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on NBC, Channel 4

Ann-Margret has been spending too much time hanging out with grumpy old men. She's become a little testy herself -- figuratively at least.

She plays the title character in the NBC miniseries Seduced by Madness: The Diane Borchardt Story (Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m.), about an apparently deranged Wisconsin school teacher convicted of manipulating several of her students into murdering her husband. It is a departure from the positive film roles she is most often associated with -- and a role she almost turned down.

On the phone from California, the 54-year-old, two-time Oscar nominee says: "I was still on the set of Grumpier Old Men when they sent me the first draft of the script. They normally don't do that, but because I would have to start filming the mini-series right after I finished Grumpy, they needed me to get involved earlier.

"In that first draft, the character (of Diane Borchardt) was all bad. And I didn't buy it. I made some notes. I wanted to know what happened to her in her childhood. I wanted to know if she'd been married before."

The producers and writers did extensive research, including spending time in Jefferson, Wisc., where Borchardt taught and ran a T-shirt store.In successive drafts they put more flesh and blood on the character's bones -- but it still wasn't a pretty picture.The portrait they painted was of a sociopath.

"I was reluctant to do it," Ann-Margret admits. "Roger (her husband and manager Roger Smith) wanted me to. He said, 'Ann-Margret, do you always want to play a heroine?'"

"Yes I do," she responded with emphasis. "I always want to be inspirational."

She hopes viewers will find inspiration from her performance even in this largely negative role -- to get help to people who display erratic behavior similar to Borchardt's and for adolescents to be able to say "no" when asked by adults to perform anti-social tasks.

Ann-Margret has become a television regular.She's won four Emmy nominations for some of her meaty roles in movies of the week and mini-series such as The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.

"I've come to expect that, unless you buy a property, if you're over a certain age and a woman, television roles are much more challenging."

Ann-Margret, of course, is Ann-Margret Olsson of Sweden. Her father came to the United States shortly after she was born in 1941 but didn't send for the rest of his family until after the war was over. She got the urge to perform from her mother. "She was an amateur performer in our village. We would harmonize to Swedish songs and I really enjoyed that. And when we came to this country, my parents gave me dancing and piano lessons."

Growing up, she claims, she had no sense of being attractive: "I grew up in a family where you didn't talk like that. What was important was what's inside. People would say, 'Oh, what a nice girl' or'Oh, what a polite girl.'"

By the time she was 16 (and passing for 18), though, this nice, polite girl was fronting for a band in Kansas City. She eventually came to the attention of George Burns, who brought her into his act and made her a double-threat star -- appearing both in night clubs and film and successfully making the transition from sexy, singing ingenue to dramatic roles.

Her life has not been a bed of roses. She was unable to have children, there reportedly were addiction problems and of course there was the painful 1972 fall on her face in Lake Tahoe. "I was so happy to be alive, and really I wasn't hurting. They gave me great pain medicine. I got back on the stage 10 weeks later."

Her husband suffers from myasthenia gravis, a degenerative disease of the muscles.Though he currently is in remission -- "he can be in remission for 30 years," she says -- Ann-Margret stopped performing live.It was impossible for him, "going from town to town, doing one-night stands and being responsible for a cast of 30." He still works as her manager and runs her production company.

Although she's had well-publicized relationships with the likes of Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra and John Kennedy, Smith has been the one constant in her life. They've been married almost 28 years. "We like and respect each other very much and we laugh," she says. "Laughter is so important."

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