Hollywood’s vintage ingénue Angie Dickinson came to Austin to promote the restoration of 1959’s Rio Bravo film at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards and for traveling Turner Classic Movies series of events. We caught up with the woman who proves that glamorous style has no expiration date as she dishes about the Rat Pack, her film career and Burt Bacharach.
At eighty years young, it is no secret that style icon Angie Dickinson is still a bombshell, plain and simple. Once a sex kitten, always a sex kitten. She acted well, lived hard and loved even more. So, sitting down with the star of countless films at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the lead in NBC’s 1970’s hit, Police Woman was a treat and not to be taken lightly.
She still has her blond locks, even though she defied Hollywood honchos in her day to go platinum à la Monroe and Mansfield. From airplane factory secretary to beauty contest winner that launched her acting career, Dickinson is the American success story of a woman with stunning looks, amiable smarts and a steely survival instinct. Perhaps it was the honey blonde’s inner fortitude that producers saw as she initially landed in film and TV westerns, most long forgotten, with titles such as Broken Arrow, Northwest Passage, Tombstone Territory, and The Restless Gun.
From there it was up. She played Frank Sinatra’s wife in 1960’s cult classic Ocean’s 11. She was the blond bombshell the Rat Pack liked to have around. “It was great fun and no one had more fun than they did. They enjoyed each other and each in their own field, they were very popular,” she muses. Celebrities don’t often have fun until after the event, or, until after dinner because they are being watched and judged. They were all able to be totally themselves and have a blast… to be as foolish as they wanted to or as silly, and indeed they were. They were silly on Ocean’s 11 all of the time and oh, God, pulling pranks all the time. That show at night that they did, at The Sands Hotel, was the funniest thing you could ever see.”
Dickinson’s style during that era was not dissimilar from that of any other beautiful woman in her twenties at the time with a budget and good taste. She tended to favor tight sweaters, pencil skirts, stiletto heels, and the requisite bouffant hairstyle sweeping the country. Dickinson knew how to wear a form-fitting sheath dress and statement jewelry, along with furs, and it never appeared as if she was a loose woman. For evening, she often chose to wear column sheath gowns, many times they were beaded with a plunging neckline or back treatment. The woman was well aware of her physical assets. She knew her body, what looked smart on it and she conveyed that with her powerful gate.
and made a few films a year throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s before landing a relatively ground-breaking role in 1974 on NBC’s Police Story as Sgt. Pepper Anderson, paving the way for several female-driven, hour-long TV series during the 1970s and 1980s like Charlie’s Angels, Wonder Woman, The Bionic Woman, and Cagney and Lacey and most recently, Law & Order SVU. While the Women’s Liberation Movement now seems eons ago, Dickinson was as spunky then as she is now and her on-screen style reflected the pre-disco 70’s garn with flared collars, lots of denim and the ubiquitous pantsuit that freed women in the working world from the confinements of foundation garments.
When I catch up with her, she is in a playful mood and ready to chat about her colorful life. Having met her ex-husband, Burt Bacharach I begin with him. When asked about their publicly passionate relationship, she confides, “I was in my prime, certainly, as was he. We all look different now, but we were pretty good looking then. But we also showed that we were an exciting couple. It was not a boring marriage.” When I asked her if it was difficult to be married to someone as famous as she is, she’s frank to share, “Hey, it’s tough to be married, period. It’s difficult. Being married to a hot guy is tough.’
Speaking of tough guys, Dickinson is eager to change the subject to other parts of her past, like filming Rio Bravo. “It was great fun to make. It is a wonderful movie out and having it recognized for the genuine warmth and pleasure, humor and suspense that it offers. There aren’t many westerns that we can truly love,” says Dickinson. When I ask her what her favorite scene of the film is that she acted in she says, “It is the drunk scene. Where I throw the flowerpot and then get drunk. It was really hard to play since my previous roles were are a little closer to what I can play and am used to playing. But, that drunk scene is really wonderful.” Rio Bravo is the classic film in the last gasp of movie westerns, a genre that lasted since the filmmaking industry began.
When I ask her if she originally really wanted the role, Dickinson is candid. “Everybody wanted a female part that Howard Hawks directed. He was known for discovering women like Lauren Bacall and Joan Collins. He was known for taking on new people and building them up for something bigger.” Women in westerns were minimal, Dickinson recalls, so my role as a strong women was the nice departure. I wasn’t a madam, a hooker, a saloon singer or just a lonely wife on the prairie.”
What about her point of view on women in film? “It was wide open actually. When you look back at some of those movies, all on TCM, they were filled with a lot of women but I don’t know if the women were the stars unless it was a woman’s pictures. I’m not a movie scientist to be able to break that down, but there were a lot of women in movies about lightweight women and light issues. They were issues that were silly in retrospect.”
It had to have been a ball working with John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson, I inquired. “It was heaven,” she recounts. She recalls that she didn’t have scenes with some of the stars, so didn’t get to know them as well as she would have liked. “You don’t visit the set if you are not in the scene hardly ever… unless you have a thing going on with the director.”
On set musings she also recalls that, “Remember, I was a newcomer and younger than they all were. I was 26 or something and Duke was 50 and Dean was probably not much behind him. Ricky (Nelson) was 19,” she said. “I had more in common with Ricky, actually. My fellow actors on films were always studying lines, or getting ready for their next project or doing their politics. Reagan was working on his politics through a film we did, The Killers all the way,” she said. We shot in Tucson in the summer when it was127 in the shade. They didn’t have makeup trailers as a refuge,” she recounts.
Fast forward to the success of Police Woman in the 1970’s. “I didn’t know that is was a phenomenon while it was happening because the impact hadn’t come yet, averred Dickinson. “But, we did know that it was groundbreaking and probably would not be the success it turned out to be. Burt (Bacharach) was asked to do the theme song because but he did not want to be embarrassed and he didn’t think it would be the hit it was. But, Burt said go ahead and do it, ‘it’s only going to be a couple of years’ he said. But you see, it came on the wave of the women’s movement. I was just riding a big wave and that helped me.”
Her career in the 1980’s featured her in the 1980 hit Dressed To Kill with her infamous shower scene (she used a body double) before she elegantly segued into TV guest spots and movie of the week appearances that garnered high ratings and paychecks without the commitment of a series. Today, she looks as vibrant as always, her clothing now is usually tastefully black attire from head to toe. As we ended the meeting, she purred, “I’m so happy that you wanted to see me.” A bombshell always gets her way.