Angie Dickinson Reflects on ‘Rio Bravo’ and Her Friendships With Frank Sinatra and Rock Hudson
“Fair to middling” is how Angie Dickinson is feeling this morning as she talks about “Rio Bravo,” the 1959 film that made her a star. “Somebody who says they’re great at 90, you can figure out that they lie a lot.” It’s a line that could have come straight from Jules Furthman and Leigh Brackett’s script for the film — and a reminder that Dickinson’s gift for delivery isn’t dependent on working with a brilliant director, though she has many times in her seven-decade career.
Dickinson has more then 350 screen credits — an enormous body of work that includes “Ocean’s Eleven” (the 1960 original), “Point Blank” and “Dressed to Kill.” She’s set to appear April 13 at the TCM Film Festival to introduce a 4K restoration of Howard Hawks’ classic Western, whose boys’ club cast of John Wayne, Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson and Walter Brennan she breaks up with that same brisk humor. Ahead of the event, Dickinson speaks with Variety about catching the acting bug after spying Frank Sinatra (later a lifelong friend) on the set of “The Jimmy Durante Show,” working with Brian De Palma, and other highlights from a lifetime of memories.
What was the path that led you to “Rio Bravo“?
There was a beauty contest or a bathing suit contest, a promotion for “The Jimmy Durante Show.” They called me where I worked at the airplane factory and said, “You want to be on the show on Sunday?” And I had to ask my boss for an early getaway on Friday because they were already starting rehearsals. I walked in and right at the door where I walked in, there was Frank Sinatra singing with Jimmy Durante. I said, “Oh, I’ve got to be a part of this!” It was just magical. And seeing Frank Sinatra in person, it was the beginning of our long friendship, and it was the beginning of what we all call “We got bit by the bug.”
Wait, you worked at an airplane factory? What was your job there?
I worked as the boss’s secretary. It was a wonderful job, [but] finally I got too much work to keep the job going as well. So I had to give that up and I just got lucky all the way around.
What was the experience of getting cast in “Rio Bravo” like?
Oh, it was spectacular. But I was just like everybody else — whenever there was a great star or a great part around, everybody tried to get it. And I worked very, very hard to get in shape. I needed a little bit of massaging to get the extra fat off of my arms and legs and all that stuff. And so I was ready, and it was just one of those little miracles. But they did test me, and Frank Gifford, who played for the [New York Giants), played John Wayne’s part in my test because he was also under contract to Warner Bros. Howard Hawks didn’t talk much, so you had to figure out what he wanted. And he evidently saw a few people, and I guess I was just lucky I was one of them.
Was John Wayne’s natural stoicism easy to play against?
Yeah, because that was pretty true to his true nature. Very quiet and respectful — not loving exactly but showing he had the pleasure of your company, or certainly not working against it. Well, once you’re in with Hawks and Wayne, you’d do anything and everything they ask you to do. But luckily I felt very normal in that space. In other words, they didn’t intimidate me.
Feathers epitomizes the Hawksian woman. Did you know enough about his work for that to give you a window into the role?
I was not that far into my show business career to be that smart, and even didn’t recognize his style. But I wasn’t intimidated. I can say that Howard Hawks was difficult because he wanted it to come out of you, not him, so he didn’t tell you what to do.
Were there little signals that he gave so you knew when you were doing what was needed?
He would not hesitate to take a full hour just to sit and talk with me. I thought we were talking about the scene, and he just wanted to get me to completely relax and be totally myself to where he didn’t have to give me direction, which is what he would want — because otherwise all of his lady stars would be the same.
You worked in “Rio Bravo” with Dean Martin. You had become friends with Frank Sinatra, and then you appeared in “Oceans 11.” How convivial were those social circles in real life?
Frank liked to pull tricks on sets, and they always had fun when they worked because of that, but he would watch it so that it never got in the way, basically. But when they were all together, they were pretty naughty.
In just a few years you worked with Don Siegel, Arthur Penn, John Boorman and Roger Vadim. Did the roles that you got challenge you the way you hoped?
I’m not good at challenges. I really had a lucky time. Whatever the luck was, I seemed to get it at the right time, at least for what my goals were. Now, maybe somebody else wouldn’t have settled for that, but I was perfectly content to get what I got. And what I didn’t get, I didn’t fret. You don’t think you’re going to get everything.
You had a number of iconic moments, like your 1966 “Esquire” pinup where you were only wearing a sweater and a pair of white pumps. Was selling your sexuality something that you embraced as a necessary evil? Or did you struggle to be comfortable with that?
I didn’t have to struggle to be comfortable with compliments or with success. I’m a North Dakota girl, but even with my modest beginnings, I never felt out of place in show business, and I took it for what it was and I didn’t make more of it. And so I think I rode that horse very gradually and pretty soon got to be a pretty good rider.
My mistake was taking [the TV show] “Police Woman,” because that just wore me out. Because it was four years of getting up at 5 o’clock and working five days a week until midnight on Fridays. That’s a tough job when you have a child or children or a family. As I look back, I would’ve not done “Police Woman,” because it marked me in a certain role. I would’ve been free to take the movies I wanted to take. But you just don’t know. You have to choose and live with it. And it’s not an easy business because everybody wants it.
Roger Vadim’s “Pretty Maids All in a Row” feels like very much a party. Was the bohemian, very open sexuality of everybody in the movie all saved for the camera?
It was all for the camera, certainly from my point of view and from Rock’s point of view, because Rock was not gregarious and open with just anybody. We got to be very good friends. There’s a nice story about Rock and myself being at the same small dinner party, and the server came over and said, “Ms. Dickinson, the police are out at your limousine,” because I had come from a job, so I kept the limousine that I had. Rock was sitting by me and he said, “Angie and I will take care of this,” and we went out to see what was going on, and they busted a guy for drugs. He had locked himself out of the limousine and they arrested him. And they said, “If you’ve got anything in there, take it out now, because we’re taking this away.” And so it was a cute moment.
Were there co-stars you particularly enjoyed working with?
John Cassavetes was fascinating, and “The Killers” was a good movie. And Don Siegel was a wonderful director, if you know his work. But most of them were just fine and quite wonderful — and a couple of them I didn’t get along very much with. But it’s a very personal business and you can get very comfortable with people on the set. All you start at 6 in the morning and you go till 7 at night and they’re your family for a few weeks or months or whatever.
Roger Corman famously said, if you do a good job for him, then you never have to work for him again. You made two “Big Bad Mama” movies for him. Was it exciting to be the star of those movies?
I don’t remember what caused me to take that risk, because he did make cheap movies. Some of them were really good, but he wasn’t the driver. It was [Steve Carver], who he got as a director. We assumed he knew what he was doing, but you didn’t go to the bank very often with him. “Big Bad Mama” is pretty funny, if you can get past the young girl.
Are there other films from your career you’re especially proud of?
I don’t know. “Rio Bravo” is one that just holds up no matter when. “Dressed to Kill,” I would like to have been in it just a little bit more before they knocked me off.
He was great and he [allowed] no fussiness. It was hard work because he was a very serious filmmaker, and then he took on serious subjects, so you have to do it that way. But he was a master director — oh, my God.
As “Rio Bravo” is being rereleased in 4K, are there moments from your career, or from this film, that you’ll always carry with you?
Literally I don’t know where I would be if it weren’t for “Rio Bravo,” number one. But also the memory of Walter Brennan and John Wayne and Howard Hawks and Dean — memories sad and happy both.
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