By Wilmer Ames
November 27, 1978 12:00 PM

I am truly a liberated woman. I rely on myself for my happiness, my well-being—everything. My God, I even whistle at a good-looking man if I want to.

That sentiment might seem unexpected, to say the least, coming from a winner of Hollywood’s Golden Garter Award (for the greatest gams of 1962). Angie Dickinson is, after all, more used to raising eyebrows than consciousness in a life that’s paid its dues to sexism. Her very presence at the 1961 Inaugural Ball dancing with President Kennedy was enough to set tongues tattling and for years to typecast her. Presumably, it wasn’t the violence that made her Police Woman the favorite TV series of Gerald Ford (he once even rescheduled a White House press conference because it conflicted with the show). But by the last of her four seasons (and three Emmy nominations) on Police Woman, even Angie had finally had it with scenes “where the phone rings while I’m taking a bath. I always want to look as sexy, beautiful and luscious as I can,” she admits. “But I’d prefer scripts where the sensuality is pouring out naturally for the whole 60 minutes.”

It was more like 360 superheated minutes when Angie’s chance finally came last week on ABC’s miniseries Pearl. As an adulterous Army wife in Pearl Harbor in 1941, Dickinson’s body count was as frightening as that of the Japanese. The glossy Pearl role came just when Angie needed it. At 47, her 13-year marriage to composer Burt Bacharach was in painful limbo, and NBC had knocked out her other prop, unexpectedly canceling Police Woman. “You wonder,” Dickinson muses about the axing, “am I safe? Are they going to reject me again?”

Ironically, her marriage was unsettled by her very success in Police Woman. Back in early 1974, when Burt’s career was ascendant with hits like Alfie, What the World Needs Now and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, Angie prophetically observed, “I’d hate it if I were a bigger star than my husband.” Then, when her series took off, Burt’s career started to slide. Angie at first tried to cope with her family-vs.-career conflicts by requiring that she leave her Police Woman sets in time to fix dinner for Burt and their once frail daughter Nikki, who had been born three months premature weighing one pound, eight ounces. “It was tough for Angie,” remembers PW co-star Earl Holliman. “She wanted her own series, and Bacharach encouraged her.” Indeed, during her earlier slump Burt had said, “If she’s down a notch from me in the public eye these days, well, she should be up a notch—she’s a bitch of an actress.”

But eventually, two years ago, the Bacharachs tried a separation (Angie prefers the euphemism “living separately”) that she admits “our friends say is weird.” Bacharach is based at their beach house in Del Mar, Calif. but still uses their Beverly Hills home as his mailing address and frequently stays over when in town. Angie hasn’t disturbed the family photos that line the walls, Bacharach’s prized Steinway in the living room or his Emmy and two Oscars on the shelves. “We are not divorced and we are not separated permanently,” she explains. “At some time in the future one or both of us will decide what to do.”

In the meantime they are both discreetly playing the field—Angie most publicly escorted by David Janssen during his brief separation from his wife, Dani, and when they co-starred in TV’s A Sensitive, Passionate Man. “I feel perfectly free to go out,” says Angie. “Burt goes out with women, and I go out with men. But I still consider myself married to Burt Bacharach—quite married. I love Burt. I adore him. Today my first choice to go out with would be Burt. But who knows about tomorrow?”

Angie’s romantic past is just as tantalizing. The persistent rumor of her supposed liaison with John Kennedy has lately leered its ugly head with Kitty Kelley’s breathlessly uncheckable best-seller, Jackie Oh! Kelley has Angie—who met the Kennedys through her then boyfriend Frank Sinatra—skinnydipping with JFK, Bobby et al at the Peter Lawfords’ house on the very night of his 1960 nomination in L.A. Now a tight-lipped Dickinson refuses to discuss the subject and even switches off reporters’ recorders when it is broached.

“I campaigned and barnstormed across Nebraska, Idaho, Indiana and Utah to try to get him some votes,” she says angrily. “I thought he would make a great President before a lot of people did, and that’s all I want to say about him.” Her equally oblique response to a cheeky talk show host who recently asked if she’d had an affair with JFK was, “That’s something I would only discuss with my confessor.” Now she tries to conceal the hurt of living with the rumors. “Upset me? I’m not going to throw up about it,” she asserts. “But what does upset me are the stories that sound logical or plausible. The absurd ones we laugh at and use as lining for the garbage.”

However close she got to Camelot, Angie started off as average Angeline Brown, the daughter of two newspaper printers in Kulm, N.Dak. (pop. 584). The family moved to Glendale, Calif. when Angie was 9, and she attended parochial school, Immaculate Heart College and graduated from Glendale College. Inevitably, her degree back then led to nothing more than secretarial work (with an aircraft company) and a five-year marriage to Gene Dickinson, a college football star who became an accountant. Then a beauty pageant (or “boob contest,” as Angie calls it) thrust her into Hollywood. Director Howard Hawks cast her opposite John Wayne in 1959’s Rio Bravo, but only The Chase with Brando and a disappointing string of B movies followed until Police Woman. (As the first hour-long dramatic show starring a female, it is still regarded as a TV landmark; without her role as “Pepper,” there would never have been that three-shaker imitation, Charlie’s Angels.)

Today Dickinson can say, “I don’t think I need money, so I can take things only because they’re irresistible, like Pearl.” Or if they feature a challenging colleague. “For someone like John Cassavetes,” she cracks, “he’s so good, I’d take $4.50 an hour.” Her comfortable life (movie contracts stipulate she can spend every third week with Nikki, now 12) includes one live-in servant who is a combination governess, housekeeper and secretary at their Beverly Hills HQ. Angie’s cooking sophistication has never proceeded past the tuna casserole stage (“You can ruin it and you haven’t ruined your life”). Her favorite pastimes are screening movies and roughing it in a sleeping bag on camping and fishing trips.

Her insistence on taking Nikki along on location led to a frightening near drowning while in Hawaii for Pearl. Swimming near Diamond Head’s famous Blow Hole area, Angie and Nikki were caught in a riptide that swept them onto a sharp coral reef. “I thought, ‘Well, this is it, the End,’ ” remembers Dickinson. She managed to keep Nikki afloat—and was later credited with saving her life—but emerged from the surf bruised and cut so badly she still has an eight-inch scar on one leg. “It was a horrifying experience,” she says, “I’ll never get over it.”

Unlike other sex symbols, Angie has never denigrated the peerless supports of her success. “Are my legs exploited? Well, that’s all I have got to sell,” she says overmodestly. “I always felt lucky, because in this business if you don’t get exploited, you don’t get a job.” Further, her feelings of liberation do not rule out backsliding statements like “essentially a woman’s job is being a woman.”

With her first feature film in 10 years, a French-made thriller called Labyrinth, just wrapped, Dickinson feels as if the action is only beginning. She’s changed to a shorter hairdo, lost five of the 10 pounds she gained making Pearl (her diet secret: “Just not to eat”) and is going to a singing teacher. Still a six-figure force on the commercials circuit, she soloed on the Martini & Rossi ad she did with Burt before their marriage went on the rocks, and is now beaming the Pepsodent message. Ahead, in case she can’t get Cassavetes, she fantasizes about doing a remake of Casablanca—”in either the Ingrid Bergman or the Bogart part.”

Looking at the past, “I don’t have big regrets—I have little ones,” Angie reflects. “I’m a gentle fighter, and I believe in a certain amount of fate.” This is not to say that Angie is any less “anxious about where I’m going. When I’m older, I’ll probably scream every morning when I get up. But I will not embarrass myself by pretending to be 30 when I’m 50.1 would like to sustain a career when it doesn’t matter what age I am. Life is going on,” she continues, “maybe alone, but at least up.”