Angie Dickinson jokes that she would be working at See’s Candies if she hadn’t been hired for her role in 1959’s Rio Bravo. The western, which put Angie on the map, also starred John Wayne, Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson and was directed by famed helmer Howard Hawks. Today, it’s regarded as a western masterpiece. “I knew it was going to be an extraordinary experience, but I didn’t know how extraordinary,” Angie, 91, tells Closer.
Of course, Rio Bravo was just the start of Angie’s remarkable 55-year career in show business. She appeared in more than 50 movies, including the Rat Pack classic Ocean’s 11, and became a household name on the gritty, groundbreaking 1970s crime drama Police Woman. The actress recently introduced the 4K world premiere restoration of Rio Bravo at the Turner Classic Film Festival.
Why do you think Rio Bravo remains a classic of its genre?
“Because of Howard Hawks. He was a great moviemaker. There’s also a warmth to this movie. Everybody helped each other.”
What do you remember about starting production on Rio Bravo?
“It was extra scary. They all were already there and had a dinner party [to welcome] me. It was John Wayne, Howard Hawks and the cameramen, everybody. It hit me how big a movie this was. I hadn’t realized it until I got there. We used to film in a place called Old Tucson, outside of Tucson [Arizona], oddly enough. All the western movies came to shoot there.”
What did you think of John Wayne?
“He was so generous. This was John Wayne! This is his 300th movie! He was such a pro. And such a gentleman. He would just quietly lean on his rifle and just wait for me to get the scene right, which was very difficult. I was quite fresh to show business.”
Sounds like John was a favorite co-star.
“The Duke is close to number one. Not because of his fame, but because he was so patient with me. And nobody called him John. If you called him John, he wouldn’t answer. It was Duke all the way.”
Did you have a crush on him?
“Duke was awfully special — but he was married. I really didn’t get a good whack at him. I think if he hadn’t been attached, we might have gone out and had a good time of it. He was divine.”
What was working with Dean Martin like?
“I had only one scene with him where I shaved him. And of course he was a delight. He became a great friend. Jeanne, his wife, was also so incredible. We were so close I was in the family car at his funeral.”
Of course, you famously dated his pal Frank Sinatra. How did you meet?
“My first job in show business was The Colgate Comedy Hour, which was on every Sunday. When I walked by his [dressing] room after our show, I said, ‘Good night, Frank.’ And he came up to say good night and took my number and that was it! Frank had been with Ava Gardner and had just broken up. He had a number one hit, which he hadn’t had in a long time. It was a good time in his life. And I fit right in.”
What was Frank like as a boyfriend?
“He was generous, wonderful, sweet, handsome, warm and cuddly. My mother baked cookies for me to give to Frank Sinatra. I cherish that moment so much. When I gave them to him, he laughed and sent her flowers.”
What was it like being on the set of ‘Ocean’s 11’ with all the guys?
“That was wonderful. Nobody was as lucky as I was to be around them! They were full of pranks, as you can imagine with 11 of those guys, and monkeying around and playing tricks on each other. I wasn’t part of the tricks. That was a man’s world. But it was a great honor to be in the movie.”
How did your role in ‘Police Woman’ come about?
There was a wonderful show, Police Story. The last episode of the first season had a woman undercover cop in it. David Gerber, the executive producer, got to me — I was shooting Big Bad Mama and he came to the set. He said, ‘Don’t you want to be a household name?’ God, that did it! Because I realized, yes, I did want to be a household name. So, I signed on to the series. But if I had to do it all again, I wouldn’t have done it. It was too much work.”
Do you have any favorite memories of shooting the series?
The thing I remember the most was saying goodbye. It was four years of up at 5 a.m. and home at 7 p.m. — long days. It was really torture physically. I did, I think, 91 shows. They were all interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend doing a series to anyone. It’s slave labor. ”
You were married to composer Burt Bacharach, whom we lost in February. Were you in touch before his passing?
“Yes, we were. He was a great, great giver of himself. I had orchids every birthday and every Christmas after we parted. I’m looking at the last one right now as we speak. But we didn’t belong together. It was a bad mix.”
Your daughter together, Nikki, died in 2007. What was she like?
“Nikki was fantastic and very talented. She had very poor eyesight due to being born three months premature. She couldn’t read music, so she had to do everything by ear, but she loved to play the drums.”
How do you honor her memory?
“I honor her memory every minute of every hour of every single day.”
How do you stay so healthy at age 91?
“I’m largely a vegetarian — except for occasional country fried chicken. I don’t eat a big dinner. I sleep eight hours a night. I do my own gardening, and I stay out of trouble.”
What are the greatest lessons you have learned?
I’ve learned to never miss a sunset if it’s possible. I’ve learned to be kind when I want to swear like hell. And I’ve learned to just stop talking when I’ve said enough.”