Before Rihanna, before Madonna, before even Cher, there was Ann-Margret.
She was the original mononymous triple threat, hijacking pop culture from the moment she burst onto the scene in the early 1960s.
Born Ann-Margret Olsson in Sweden in 1941, she emigrated to the U.S. with her parents in 1946. A screen test for 20th Century Fox in 1961 led to a seven-year contract and stardom in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie.
The following year, Ann-Margret was holding her own opposite Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas, the first of four films they made together. (When Presley’s then-girlfriend Priscilla learned the two stars had an affair, she “picked up a flower vase and threw it across the room,” according to her 1985 biography Elvis and Me.)
Now 82, Ann-Margret is nowhere near retiring — she’s appeared in recent years on The Kominsky Method and Ray Donovan. On May 23, she will host An Evening with Ann-Margret on TCM where she will introduce two of her own films, Viva Las Vegas and 1965’s Once a Thief, and one close to her heart: the 1978 Vietnam War drama Coming Home. (All proceeds from her new perfume will benefit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.)
caught up with the screen legend at her home in Beverly Hills — the former Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall estate — to dish about everything from Marilyn Monroe to Mad Men.
Hi there, Ann-Margret. Can I call you Ann-Margret?
You can call me Ann-Margret. Or you can call me A.M.
OK. A.M. it is. I’ve wanted to talk to you for a very long time, so I’m so glad that this finally happened. I’ve been a fan of yours since Tommy.
That came out in 1975. Oh, my gosh.
I saw it years after that on TV. It made a big impression on me.
Oh, good. I’m so glad. It certainly made a big impression on me.
I would imagine so.
I got a big scar on my left hand from Tommy.
Well, when I threw the champagne bottle into the television set, there was all this jagged glass. And all of the soap bubbles were coming up. And I came forward, whipping my hand back and forth. Whoopsie daisy! The redness of the blood was really scary.
Now I’m laughing because I’m out of my mind, is what it is.
Did it take a lot of convincing to do all that stuff with the baked beans, or were you all for it?
I knew it was going to be out of this world. It was Ken Russell. He was known to do things that nobody else would do. Oh, boy.
How long of a shoot was it for that scene?
It took all day long. It was on a Saturday, actually, and then we had to come back there on Monday. The smell of all the beans [was everywhere]. And I noticed that the crew was wearing hip boots because of all the stuff that was on the ground. It was quite interesting. I was the only one with no hip boots.
How do you feel now when you come across baked beans?
Actually, I feel very good. I do. It was quite an experience. And I’m proud of the work that I did.
It’s incredible. It’s one of the most amazing scenes I’ve ever seen in my life.
Oh, good. I’ve never done a scene like that afterwards.
One and done.
So you have this new perfume.
I sure do. And it’s my name.
Exactly. You get to wear you.
That’s right. And I have to tell you, all my life I have loved perfume and shower gel and everything. So of course now I’m wearing my own perfume.
When you were breaking out in Hollywood, what was your dream perfume? The one you wanted more than anything?
Gardénia [by Chanel]. And that’s what Ann-Margret perfume is. The main notes are gardenia and ylang-ylang and jasmine, and actually here, I actually have it here. My perm has top notes open with spicy pink pepper and Sicilian bergamot, followed by exquisite creamy gardenia, rose and Jasmine rounded with a touch of ylang-yang in the middle notes. The base is made with amber, coconut and musk.
That sounds very, very tempting.
I’m glad it does. And I want to tell you the main thing: All the profits from this limited edition perfume benefit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.
That’s such a great thing.
I went to Vietnam in 1966 with [“Secret Agent Man” singer] Johnny Rivers and his bassist and drummer, just the four of us. And then in 1968 I went with the whole crew on Bob Hope’s [USO Tour]. There were like 80 of us. It means the world for me.
I imagine the soldiers must have gotten very excited to see you.
I was so excited to see them.
Did you sing?
I sang and danced and I also spoke. I can actually speak.
Of course you can.
You know that because you’ve been an admirer.
What other stars did you bond with in Vietnam? I remember Jayne Mansfield was out there on one of those USO tours.
Do you know, I never met her. And I’ve been doing Law & Order and Mariska Hargitay, her daughter, is so incredible. And I told her the first day that I had seen her mother [around Hollywood], but I never really met her. She was a very strong lady.
What about the other bombshells? Were you friends with Marilyn Monroe?
Let’s see. I was performing in Reno, Nevada, and they were doing [1961’s] The Misfits [Monroe and Clark Gable’s last picture] out in the desert. And the producers came one night to see my show, actually. And Montgomery Clift came two nights in a row. They asked me to come out and be on the set. And Clark Gable came over — oh, what a gentleman! — to meet me. And he sat down next to me. I have a great memory of meeting everybody.
Who was the best-smelling male movie star?
(Laughs.) You know what, I don’t remember that!
What did Elvis smell like?
I don’t know what he had on, but he always smelled great. He might not have had anything on, but he just always smelled fabulous!
He seemed like a nice guy. Was he?
Oh, believe me, you would really have liked him. He was extremely funny. He would do his asides and I’d be breaking up. And he loved to tease me and I’d tease him right back. Sometimes I punched him. He didn’t punch me back. ‘Cause if he would’ve, I would’ve really punched him hard.
Did you see Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis? I’m curious if you felt they captured him or not.
I have not, no. I know the original.
You don’t need a biopic. You lived it!
I don’t know if you know this, but there was a show called Mad Men and they made a whole plot point out of you. Are you aware of that?
Do you know, my daughter-in-law called me when it was on. [My late husband] Roger [Smith] and I looked at one another and we had tears in our eyes. How nice. How really sweet and kind to do that. I had no idea it was coming.
Of course, they were watching you in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie singing the title song at the top of the film. [The song was added to the film version of the Broadway musical to showcase Ann-Margret, then 21, playing an Ohio girl who wins a contest to kiss Conrad Birdie — a spoof on Elvis Presley — before he enlists in the army. Ann-Margret stands before a stark blue background and sings the song directly into the camera.]
That was done three months after I finished the movie.
Why is that?
It was Mr. George Sidney, the director. It was his idea. The studio wouldn’t go with it, so he did it with his own money. There was a screening of the whole movie, and the studio gave him back the money. He came up with 8 zillion ideas. And this was just so out there. The studio didn’t want to take a chance. I can understand that.
Then in 1971, you worked with Mike Nichols in Carnal Knowledge. That was kind of a serious turn for you. It was less frothy than some of your other stuff.
Right. It certainly was not frothy. That is not a word I would say about Carnal Knowledge.
But it’s a wonderful movie. And you’re incredible in it. You were nominated for a best supporting actress Oscar!
My daddy never saw the movie Carnal Knowledge. He had heard that people thought that I was a good actress and that made him very proud. But he knew, of course, what I had to do there. So he didn’t want to see it. I’m the only child and I’m a girl. [Singing] Woman! W-O-M-A-N!
But you did a lot of sexy stuff throughout your career. Did he ever feel uncomfortable about it?
Daddy? Well, he loved Bye Bye Birdie. He loved [1962’s] State Fair and [1965’s] The Cincinnati Kid. I was his only child and he was my protector.
One thing I’m sure you get asked all the time — in fact, I’ve seen you get asked about it — is Ann-Margrock on The Flintstones. But I’m going to ask you about it anyway.
George Sidney at the time was part of Hanna-Barbera and he was the one that had the idea of doing Ann-Margrock and singing to Pebbles. It’s really cute. I remember one time being in an airport and this little girl, 3 or 4 years old, came up to me and said, “You sang to Pebbles!” “Yes, I did. You saw that?” “Yes, I did!”
I bet you she was coached by her parents.
(Laughs.) It’s so weird to go from that to Carnal Knowledge. No wonder I’m a little mixed up.
So where can we buy your perfume?
And finally, your hair color: Does it have a name?
“Orange.” OK, I’ll look for it.
I went orange in State Fair, which is my second film.
What’s your natural hair color?
Very, very dark brown.
Oh, no kidding. I just assumed you were a blonde or a redhead.
You can keep assuming it. I really do now feel like this orange person.
Hey, if it ain’t broke.
I’ve been this color for such a long time now. I am very happy with it.
I just associate it with you. Like there’s Tiffany Blue and there’s Ann-Margret Orange. It’s just — it’s you.
[Singing] Baby, it’s you…
Can you sing something for me? If someone’s a famous singer, I try to get them to sing to me.
Oh, let’s see. [Singing] Did you see that I’ve got a lot to learn / Well, don’t think I’m trying not to learn / Since this is a perfect spot to learn / Oooh, teach me tonight!
Wow. Thank you!
Hey, you’re so welcome.
You’re a legend. You just sang to me. Yay!
Yes, I did.