Updated December 18, 1978 12:00 PM

There are lots of little girls growing up all over the world who think that every day is Christmas for Ann-Margret. No other woman entertainer and only the Sinatra-Carson echelon men outearn her reported Las Vegas take of $285,000 a week. She headlines TV specials at will, including Rockette, NBC’s December 14 tribute to Radio City Music Hall. Critics take her more seriously with every movie; her latest, the horror show Magic, was the sleeper hit of the fall. And she and exactor Roger Smith seem to be making a run on the Hollywood marital longevity record (they’re now at 11 years).

But until now Ann-Margret hasn’t taken a real vacation in five years, and that workaholism has extracted its price: an incipient ulcer in 1971, a near breakdown, admitted “major bumps” in her marriage and emotional problems she is only now beginning to deal with at 37. Her solution is to firmly put down her size-6 foot to take a break “and get my life in order again. I just have never stood up for myself,” she admits. “It had reached a point where I was losing sleep at night. A lot of things have happened to me this year that I have to work out.”

Her problem is, in effect, that she needs a remedial course in the Robert Ringer School of Self-Assertiveness. “I would never get angry—that was a thing with me. I was stoic even if someone really hurt me. I was proud of the fact that I could take anything.” On location a couple of years ago, her suppressed feelings finally broke through and “I went berserk.” Since then she’s seen a psychologist (a woman) sporadically because “I realize I need help and direction. I want some answers to questions.” The immediate effect is that “it’s a whole new world for me. I am learning to talk back, to be confident, and to say ‘no.’ Now I realize it’s okay if I shout at someone or if someone doesn’t like me.” She still admits, though, to having “a very difficult time expressing myself. That’s why I like acting—you just follow the script.” In her club act, she smiles, “I used to say four words—’Thank you very much.’ Now I’m up to 17.”

Her most assertive step will be to clear even more time off than she took after that near-fatal 22-foot fall from a stage scaffold at the Sahara in Lake Tahoe. She suffered a concussion and crushed the left side of her face, fracturing five delicate bones and her jaw. “I knew I was in trouble,” she recalls, “when I woke after four days in a coma and nobody would let me look into a mirror.” Her husband-manager was criticized for pushing her back on a Vegas stage only 10 weeks later—but she says, with a catch in her voice, “I returned because my father had terminal cancer, and I wanted to prove to him that I would be all right after he was gone.”

The idea of death has long been a trauma for her. Born in Sweden, she was brought to the Chicago area at age 6. When her electrician father, Gustav Olsson, was injured in a fall, the family was given lodgings in a funeral home in exchange for her mother’s working as receptionist. At times Ann slept in the room with the caskets and could not go to sleep until the mourners had left. After her accident, her father survived long enough to see Ann’s comeback on television. She remembers being so shaken by his death that “whenever somebody looked at me I started crying. I don’t ever want to come that close to a breakdown again.” The fall left her with an occasional click when she closes her jaw and, though unrelated, she also suffers a tremor in her right hand when she’s tired. More important, Ann emerged from that terrible period with the conviction that “if you want to tell someone that you love them, that you miss them, tell them now.”

There is one other reason for Ann’s sabbatical, which will begin after a holiday Vegas date. She and Roger “have been trying for quite a while to have a baby,” she explains, before adding wryly, “We must be doing something wrong.” Smith reports that tests of both of them proved “everything’s fine,” and that doctors offer conflicting views on whether “nerves” are a factor. “Overwork probably doesn’t really have anything to do with it,” he concludes, “but what the hell, we want to try everything before it’s too late.”

Ann-Margret’s maternal instincts have been partially satisfied by helping raise Smith’s three children from his previous marriage to actress Victoria Shaw. He has custody of the kids—Tracy, 21, Jordan, 20, and Dallas, 17—and they are close to their stepmother. Undoubtedly’ because of Ann’s own strict Swedish upbringing, Roger finds that “she’s very good teaching manners, etiquette and house rules. The kids are happier and better off for it.” Ann-Margret hastens to add that she doesn’t play “the wicked stepmother.” The surrogate mother role also helped her decide after six months “and many sleepless nights” not to adopt. “Now I want to have Roger’s baby. I feel as if I really have a lot of love in me to give. But if it doesn’t happen, I’m not going to let it ruin my life.”

Smith, who starred in TV’s 77 Sunset Strip, gave up his own acting career 11 years ago and began managing his wife because “the amount of money the two of us could generate separately wasn’t worth the loneliness.” A shrewd businessman, he pulled Ann-Margret out of a $117,000 hole to a multimillion-dollar fortune and still marvels that “I once made more money in a single call to my stockbroker than I did in all my years of acting, writing and producing.” Ann-Margret concedes, “A couple of years ago I said, ‘You make all the decisions, because I don’t want to make any.’ Roger still makes the final decisions, but we discuss everything first. I choose to be in that kind of relationship.”

During the 10 years they’ve lived in their Benedict Canyon home—once owned by Bogie and Bacall—they have doubled the size of the house and built a guest cottage. There’s a rehearsal hall and movie theater. Two additional acquisitions include a home three minutes away for Ann’s mother, and a Malibu beachhouse. They bought that in February, but it stands empty “because we haven’t been home long enough to furnish it yet,” she explains. They already have a pool and tennis court at the main house, and she cheerfully avoids domestic work (they have a staff of two), though Roger occasionally cooks. She does enjoy shopping and personally picks out gifts for 200 colleagues and friends at Christmas. She also writes all the cards herself. Her list includes a nurse she befriended along the way in her accident-prone life. She owns a Honda 1000 but rarely drives it since suffering head injuries in a 1971 crackup, and she even managed to incur 24 stitches in her head stumbling into a bedboard in Vegas. “I didn’t know how badly I was hurt until I looked up at the ceiling mirror and thought, ‘Oh my God, there’s blood everywhere.’ ”

After 17 years and 29 movies (“I played so many bitches everybody thought I was one”), Ann-Margret still feels “like a bit of a Pollyanna, but now I’m more realistic than I was a few years ago. I still drive Roger crazy because I’m a diplomat; I’m so supersensitive that it’s painful.” She’s too polite to even discuss the muckups that led her to choose works like Kitten with a Whip and give up vehicles like Cat Ballou and Bonnie and Clyde. She generally screens her own movies just once (including Carnal Knowledge, for which she got an Oscar nomination) and doesn’t read the reviews. (Magic, her new picture, is so full of tacky cracks about her breasts that one indignant critic denounced the script as “desecration of a national treasure.”)

The ironies in her own life as a gracefully maturing sex symbol—she uses both Marilyn Monroe’s old movie stand-in and make-up man—do not escape someone so aware of mortality. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing when I’m 50,” she says. “I have no idea if I’ll even make it to 50 after seeing how quickly you can be snuffed out. I just want to be the best I can be, whatever age.” Allan Carr, the supersmart co-producer of Grease and Ann’s co-manager for 11 years until Roger recently let him go, observes magnanimously: “I hope her analysis, or whatever it is, helps. She could work as long as Bette Davis and become one of the legendary movie stars.”