The Scandinavians, as their airline advertises, have been “navigators of the world—since it was flat.” They also have made their way in Hollywood with Garbo, Bergman, Ullmann—and Ann-Margret, who certainly isn’t flat either. Actually, in recent years Ann-Margret has earned credits for more than her physical endowments, and this week she is being celebrated in Chicago, where she emigrated from Sweden 26 years ago at age 7. Mayor Daley has proclaimed March 21 “Ann-Margret Day,” an honor usually reserved for astronauts and Democratic politicians.
To be sure, the “day” is part of a nationwide Columbia Pictures hype for Tommy, the inevitable film based on the rock opera by Britain’s The Who. Already the original album has grossed $7 million in the U.S. Tommy has played a twin-stand at the Metropolitan Opera House, produced spin-offs by corps de ballet and even a best-selling rendition by the London Symphony Orchestra. The movie features Elton John as the Pinball Wizard, Oscar front-runner Jack Nicholson in a cameo as Tommy’s doctor, soul sister Tina Turner as the Acid Queen, and guitar virtuoso Eric Clapton as the miracle-worker preacher. In the title role is Who lead singer Roger Daltrey, and Ann-Margret (though she is only three years older) is cast as his mother. Her managers figure to ride in on a wave of Tommy-mania, which seems likely to make the film a Fantasia-type turn-on with heavy box-office turnover.
But even before Tommy, the career of Ann-Margret—23 mostly rotten movies in 14 years—had survived with surprising indestructibility. A major attraction in Vegas ($125,000 per week) and a renewable ratings’ hit with her annual TV specials, she has been in search only of a solid film role. Her last one was Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge in 1971, when her critics—she had been labeled a female Elvis or a vanilla Raquel Welch—finally had to eat their words. Now with Tommy, hotshot manager Allan Carr feels Ann-Margret comes up to a new level of acting sophistication (she ages from 20 to 40 in the movie). “She has only just begun to scratch the surface of her dramatic talent,” he says. “Or should I say that the Anne Bancroft in Ann-Margret is just beginning to emerge?”
It was Carr who in 1967 told her husband, actor Roger (77 Sunset Strip) Smith, “This girl you love has career problems.” And indeed she had. In the early 1960s she was a “bankable” box-office name comparable only to Jerry Lewis and Elvis. But then she went into eclipse, turning down substantial roles in Cat Ballou and Bonnie and Clyde for better paying but bad films.
In 1972 tragedy hit, with her much-publicized accident at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe. She plummeted 22 feet from a stage scaffold, suffering a brain concussion and fracturing five facial bones, her jaw and her left arm. Coming out of four days in a coma she remembers: “I knew something was wrong when they wouldn’t let me look into the mirror.” The plastic surgery (“all done from inside, the doctor didn’t cut my face”) was a masterwork. Just as remarkable was her comeback two months later in Vegas. “The press said Roger was pushing me too hard,” she says. “That’s not true. I wanted to get back because my father had terminal cancer. The only way I could convince him I would be well was to say, ‘You watch me, Daddy, you watch me. I’m going to play in Vegas.’ ”
He lived until after her performance but was not well enough to attend it, and today husband Roger has become Ann-Margret’s father protector. “I’m shy,” she admits. “I even cross the J street to avoid meeting people, and we rarely go to parties.” Smith agrees. “She just has no armor. I think I had a lot to do with her talking to people again. You can’t spend your life being a hermit.” Ann-Margret recognizes her own emergence. “When I played Vegas in 1967,” she recalls, “I said exactly four words to my audience—’Thank you very much.’ Now I carry on with them. Since the accident it makes me happier than ever to try to make people happy. It is like Tommy. They say, ‘See me, touch me, feel me,’ in Tommy. That’s important. So often we go through life like zombies.”
Ann-Margret’s colleagues are often touched by her unexpected sensitivity. “There is more to Ann-Margret than you think,” says her Tommy director, Ken Russell. “She tries and works so hard.” He recounts how she accidentally cut her hand in one scene and had 23 stitches but, trouperlike, continued to work. “A star would have used that as an excuse to spend a week on the Riviera recovering, but not Ann-Margret.”
Husband Roger Smith, 42, who never enjoyed his own acting career, now settles for managing Ann-Margret’s, with Carr. “Personally, I’m not interested in what goes on in Hollywood,” says Smith. “One thing that always impressed me, though, were stories about people in show business who made lots of money, then ended up with nothing. Well, I think I’ve arranged it so that never happens to us. We could go off and never lift another finger. It is a challenge to make money with money, and it’s more fun than acting.” The Smiths’ net worth must be upwards of $10 million, invested, he says, in “banks, gold, stocks, bonds, macadamia nuts in Hawaii, cattle. Now I’m looking into raising shrimp in an artificial environment like the Mojave Desert.”
“They live like this suburban king and queen,” says Carr, who is one of the few regular visitors to their seven-acre estate in Hollywood’s rural but chic Benedict Canyon. The property has its own Hollywood history, having been the home of Bogart and Bacall and, before them, of Hedy Lamarr. Smith has doubled the size of the original white Cape Cod main house and built a new guest cottage which fits in perfectly with the pool, tennis court, rehearsal hall and mini movie theater.
The son of a southwestern cowboy clothes-maker, Roger still has the scars from the sewing machine he used in his father’s business. “I can still cut and sew a shirt, and in a pinch,” he says, “I fix Ann-Margret’s costumes.” Roger’s three teenage children (by actress Victoria Shaw) also have quarters in the house but are in private school in Tucson. “I bring them home every five or six weeks for weekends though, because we are a close family now,” says Roger. As for children of their own, Ann-Margret says, “If it happens, it happens. It is up to Him,” she sighs, looking skyward. Two live-in servants round out the Smith retinue. Ann-Margret herself is not a cook, but Roger is. In the kitchen are the only signs of Ann-Margret’s heritage. She points to some prayers in Swedish on the wall, including the one that is her favorite, which she translates as “God, who loves children, please take care of me.”