You can’t keep Ann-Margret down. She survived the loss of her beloved husband of 50 years, Roger Smith, in 2017, and she’s staying busy at 78, having recently wrapped a role in the big-screen comedy Never Too Late opposite fellow legends Ellen Burstyn and James Caan. “You’re not dead when you reach a certain age,” she says. “You have to keep living and not sit at home and watch TV alone. You have to participate.”

That’s a work ethic Ann-Margret learned from her Swedish-immigrant parents. She came to the U.S. at 4, not speaking a word of English, and learned not only the language but solid values. “My mother was the strongest person I ever knew,” she says. “I always went to Sunday school and sang in the choir.”

Roger Smith and Ann-Margret Wedding Day

Those musical skills paid off for her when she burst onto the scene as a vivacious singer-dancer in the early ’60s movie musicals Bye Bye Birdie and Viva Las Vegas. The latter introduced her to Elvis Presley, and they had an instant attraction. “Music ignited a fiery, pent-up passion inside Elvis and inside me,” she says. “It was an odd, funny, inspiring and wonderful sensation.” Their romance flamed out, but they remained lifelong friends.

Not long afterward, Ann-Margret tied the knot with actor Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip). “I knew I was going to marry him on the third date,” she says. They soon became inseparable, and he gave up acting to manage her career. “They couldn’t stand to be apart from each other, being on film sets on opposite ends of the country,” a friend tells Closer Weekly in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “Roger stepping in as her manager was a way for them to always be together.”

Roger took care of her personally and professionally, helping her grow beyond her sex-kitten persona. “The critics had an image of me, and they wouldn’t accept any other,” she says. “I was a cartoon character.” (In fact, she provided the voice of “Ann-Margrock” in The Flintstones.) But challenging parts in provocative ’70s films like Carnal Knowledge and Tommy changed all that, garnering her critical acclaim and attention from awards-show voters.

But her favorite role in those years was as stepmother to Roger’s three children from his first marriage. “I met them when they were 3, 6, and 7,” she says of stepdaughter Tracey, now 62, and stepsons Jordan, 61, and Dallas, 57. She’s still close to all of them today and says proudly, “Two of them are doctors.”

Ann-Margret and Roger Smith in 2017

Ann-Margret kept working steadily over the years, appearing in hits like the Grumpy Old Men movies with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and winning an Emmy for a guest shot on Law & Order: SVU in 2010. But she put her career on the back burner for years to care for Roger while he battled myasthenia gravis and Parkinson’s disease. “I kept saying no, no, no to everything because I was taking care of him,” she says. “If you’re a spouse, if one of you has a broken wing, the other takes over.”

Sadly, Roger died at 84 in 2017. “She certainly mourned for Roger but, more than anything, she fondly recalled the life they made together,” the friend says. “To her, a great love story doesn’t end with death. You carry their spirit with you.”

That’s exactly what Ann-Margret is doing these days as she embraces getting older. “I always think that age is a natural progression, and I’m ready for it,” the recent Happy! guest star says. “Whatever! I’m going to be the best 85-year-old I can be.”