Angie Dickinson: Wayne was wonderful, Dickinson said, “because he was a very unassuming guy

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For 49 years, the Memphis Film Festival has celebrated vintage television and classic cinema with an emphasis on the Western programs and cowboy movies that were a hard-riding, cow-punching, gun-slinging staple of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.

As a result, testosterone levels among the festival’s celebrity guests have been high, even when many of these actors have been well beyond retirement age.

For every “cowgirl” (Peggy Stewart), scream queen (“Creature from the Black Lagoon” star Julie Adams) or “girl reporter” (Noel “Lois Lane” Neill) in attendance, festivalgoers have been greeted by a Hole-in-the-Wall Gang’s worth of cinematic he-men: cowpokes, outlaws, marshals, trail scouts, cavalry officers, Indian chiefs, sidekicks and singing cowboys, embodied by a who’s who of sagebrush legends — Buster Crabbe, Lash LaRue, Sunset Carson, Clint Walker, Iron Eyes Cody, even the Lone Ranger himself, Clayton Moore.

This year, however, the festival’s most notable celebrity attraction is a Western veteran and television crime fighter who in 1999 appeared on Playboy magazine’s list of the “100 Sexiest Stars of the Century” — an achievement unmatched by such past fest guests as Huntz Hall and Elisha Cook Jr.
In other words, the guest is a woman — an octogenarian three-time Emmy Best Actress nominee whose career includes collaborations with Frank Sinatra, Robert Mitchum, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Ronald Reagan, Burt Reynolds, Brian De Palma, Garry Shandling and John Wayne and Howard Hawks, in Hawks’ 1959 masterpiece “Rio Bravo.”

“My training was actually in Westerns,” says actress Angie Dickinson, , on the phone from her home in Beverly Hills, a week before heading to the Mid-South for the Memphis Film Festival, which runs June 6-8 at Sam’s Town Hotel & Gambling Hall in Tunica County, Mississippi.

“I did a lot of Westerns,” Dickinson said. One of the first was “Gun the Man Down” (1951), with future “Gunsmoke” TV superstar James Arness, and “I said, ‘Sure, I can ride,’ but of course I lied, and I nearly fell off the damn horse.”
Undaunted if saddle-sore, the North Dakota-born actress also appeared in such vividly titled oaters as “The Return of Jack Slade” (1955), “Tension at Table Rock” (1956), “Shoot-Out at Medicine Bend” (1957) and “Sam Whiskey” (1969). Explained Dickinson: “I liked wearing jeans.”
Held for most of its length in various Memphis hotels and convention centers but now located in Tunica, the festival is a nostalgic event not to be confused with such local film -fest-come-latelies as the Indie Memphis Film Festival, On Location: Memphis and Outflix — events that focus mostly on new and often independent productions.

According to longtime festival organizer Ray Nielsen, hundreds of fans from around the country and sometimes even from overseas converge at the festival to swap and purchase memorabilia in a large “dealers room,” watch old movies and television episodes in several screening rooms, and mingle with the celebrity guests, who share colorful career anecdotes at various panels.

Dickinson’s key panel, set for 11 a.m. June 7, is titled “Wayne, Ford & Hawks.” Dickinson will be joined by actor Patrick Wayne (son of John Wayne), actor Christopher Mitchum (son of Robert Mitchum) and actress Karolyn Grimes (young “Zuzu” from the classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” who also appeared in director John Ford’s “Rio Grande” with John Wayne).

Angie Dickinson cites “Point Blank” as one of her best films.
Dickinson should have plenty of stories to contribute. “My most famous and most important movie, of course, is ‘Rio Bravo,’ ” she said, referring to the Hawks-directed Western in which she plays a flower pot-tossing saloon singer named “Feathers,” the distaff member of an ensemble that includes Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan.

At one point in the film, Dickinson says to Wayne: “Hey sheriff, you forgot your pants.” However, the actress — romantically linked to Sinatra and Martin, and married to songwriter Burt Bacharach from 1965 to 1981 — never encouraged the Duke to disrobe while off camera because she figured her liberal philosophy wouldn’t mesh with Wayne’s conservative politics.

I rather fancy I would have had a nice love affair with him, but I stayed my distance because I knew that would become a problem,” said Dickinson, who knew President John F. Kennedy and was close friends with the late economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who served in the administrations of FDR, JFK and LBJ. “I still am a die-hard Democrat.”

Politics aside, Wayne “was wonderful,” Dickinson said, “because he was a very unassuming guy. He was who he was, and he was very patient with me. I was new and I wasn’t polished yet, and Howard Hawks and John Wayne both were so patient with me, while Howard waited for me to get it right.”

Although “Rio Bravo” is revered (the movie came in at No. 63 on the most recent Sight & Sound Magazine critics poll of the 100 “Greatest Films of All Time”), Dickinson may be best remembered for her arresting role as detective “Pepper” Anderson on “Police Woman,” which ran from 1974 to 1978 on NBC.

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