Angie Dickinson: More than just TV’s ‘Police Woman’
A special interview with star from the Golden Age of film, television
Angie Dickinson still carries the badge from her 1970s TV series Police Woman, but it is far from her favorite role.
Although the show made her a household name, Dickinson said she actually regrets doing it.
“It’s the role I am best known for,” Dickson said.
“But I really didn’t want to do it. I said ‘you got to be kidding me. No.’ When you do a series it’s hard.
We did 91 episodes. It is really hard to keep up the level of writing and the interest. So, I told them ‘okay. I will give you four years. That’s it.’ But I feel like I lost four years of my life.”
The three time Emmy nominee for Best Actress and star of the popular 1959 John Wayne western Rio Bravo, will be a featured guest at the Memphis Film Festival on June 6-8 at Sam’s Town in Tunica.
It will be one of the few times where a female is the big attraction. Past festivals have usually shined the spotlight on TV cowboys from the Golden Age of television. Dickinson though, is no slouch, having shared the screen with the likes of Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Burt Reynolds, Kirk Douglas, Rock Hudson, and Robert Mitchum.
“I heard this was a really good festival,” Dickinson, now 87 said. “It will be nice to catch up with Robert Fuller and all the other stars who will be there. I am looking forward to it.”
Dickinson was born in North Dakota where her father was a newspaper editor and projectionist at the local theater. Although she grew up loving movies – her screen hero was John Wayne – Dickinson said she did not set out to become an actress. She was, however, the family ham from an early age.
“We were just coming out of the Depression and our toys were playing with kettles we smuggled out of the kitchen to make mud pies,” Dickinson said. “And we would put on plays. I always had to be the star.
My sisters remind me constantly. I don’t know why.
That’s just how I am. I was always comfortable in front of the camera and in the spotlight.”
Dickinson’s family moved to California in 1942 and after graduation she found work as a secretary and competed in beauty pageants, which led to an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour. The guest star was Frank Sinatra, who would become a lifelong friend. “I spotted off right away that I would do okay acting,” Dickinson said.
“And then I went to drama school for four years four nights a week.”
Dickinson landed roles on television in programs like Perry Mason and Mike Hammer and on the anthology series General Electric Theater and Death Valley Days. But it was in westerns where she really learned to act.
She made appearances on Wagon Train, Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Cheyenne, The Restless Gun, Have Gun, Will Travel and many others.
“You learned acting by doing all of those westerns and television shows which were exciting and fun because they were new,” Dickinson said.
She also learned to play poker from some stuntmen who were living next door.
“I said ‘what’s that?’” Dickinson said. “And they taught me. I played a lot and I just loved it. I still love it. I would play poker every Sunday night for 30 years with Ira Gerhswin and his family. One time we played until 5 a.m. and I went straight to church on my way home and went to mass and then went to bed.
It was fun. We had a great group.”
Dickinson’s first movie big starring role was in the 1955 western Gun the Man Down with James Arness, who was then starring in Gunsmoke.
“It wasn’t my first feature,” Dickinson said. “But it was the first one where I had an important role.
And there was nobody like James Arness with that imposing stature that he had.
He was warm and loving and funny.”
Gun the Man Down was produced by John Wayne’s company Batjac, and Dickinson said she suspects that her future Rio Bravo costar had an eye on her early on in her career.
“I don’t know for sure that he had a part in casting me,” Dickinson said. “But I have the feeling that he was constantly saying ‘who is that kid over there?’ He was comfortable with me when we did Rio Bravo.”
She followed that with China Gate, a movie about the early war in Vietnam directed by Sam Fuller.
“He was a good B-movie maker,” Dickinson said. “And China Gate was a B-movie. He really couldn’t afford anybody who was good. For it’s day, it was not too bad.”
Dickinson said Fuller had fought in World War II and loved to tell stories.
“Sam Fuller was not a guy to be dismissed,” Dickinson said. “He was a brave man. He had spunk. He loved to tell stories and he loved to live in the past.
He was in the war and so it had some legitimacy to it. I was very lucky that he chose me.”
Dickinson would go on to star in other mostly B westerns such as Tension at Table Rock,Shootout at Medicine Bend, and Cry Terror with James Garner.
But her big break came in Howard Hawk’s western Rio Bravo with Wayne.
Dickinson plays the gambler “Feathers” who is attracted to the sheriff played by Wayne.
“It was absolutely wonderful,” Dickinson said. “Howard Hawks was a great director. He made some of the best movies ever. And John Wayne was just so adorable whether he was with Stumpy (played by Walter Brennan) or Dean Martin or Ricky Nelson or me. It had a fantastic screenplay. It was written by a man and a woman which is why I think the female part is so good. She was not your normal, average woman in a western which are usually not important. She had the spunk of a sixties woman rather than the fifties.”
Dickinson was not happy though to find out that Hawks had sold her contract without her knowledge.
She took a small role in the 1960 heist film Ocean’s 11 with Sinatra. The movie was filmed in Las Vegas and Dickinson said she had a lot of fun with Sinatra, Dean Martin and the rest of the Rat Pack.
“It was a blast,” Dickinson said. “You would go to work and watch these guys fool around. That’s basically what it amounted to.
I was under contract with Warner Brothers so I would come around and watch them do some scenes.
Whenever Frank came in to the casino people just gathered around him. He was fantastic. He was a gentleman. He was just a great, great person.”
Dickinson had another big role in 1963’s Captain Newman, M.D. with Gregory Peck. The movie was one of the first to tackle the subject matter of post-traumatic stress disorder among soldiers and featured excellent performances from Bobby Darin, Eddie Albert, and Robert Duvall in an early role.
Unfortunately, Dickinson said the movie couldn’t decide whether it was a comedy or a drama and disappeared quickly from the box office.
“It’s very touching and a very tough subject,” Dickinson said. “The book was a comedy, I think, and they just couldn’t find the balance in the movie of what was supposed to be funny and what was supposed to be serious. So I think it was a problem interpreting the novel and not a great script. It was an uneven movie. But it was wonderful for me because I got to act opposite Gregory Peck. I stayed friends with Gregory Peck and his wife until they both died. It’s a nice movie, but it was just totally ignored.”
The 1960s also saw Dickinson star in one of her best remembered films, the crime drama Point Blank with Lee Marvin. The film was directed by John Boorman and is about a criminal out for revenge.
Dickinson said Lee Marvin was an excellent actor, but suffered from trauma he experienced in World War II.
“He was a great actor, but didn’t talk much,” Dickinson said. “So I was never quite at ease with him. Looking back, I wish I understood him better. He was wounded in the war.
The trauma of war was in him all the time. That’s something I didn’t understand. Had I understood I would have been more comfortable around him.
And I wish I had.”
Dickinson also starred with Marvin in The Killers, but the movie is more noteworthy for being the last film role for future California Governor and President Ronald Reagan.
Reagan plays a ruthless crime boss, the only time he played a bad guy on screen, and viciously slaps Dickinson across the face in the film. The movie was originally intended for television, but was released to theaters because of its violent content.
Dickinson said Reagan was a gentleman and a very nice man, but was already studying politics for his next role in history.
“He was very quiet on the set,” Dickinson said. “We weren’t buddy-buddy that much. It’s not as though he told a lot of stories. He had a huge pile of newspapers every day on the set reading. And he knew I was a Democrat. A very obvious Democrat. I had campaigned for President Kennedy in seven states.”
Reagan hated the movie but took it in order to finish his contract with Universal. Dickinson said years later whenever she saw Reagan when he was president he would always apologize for having to slap her.
“He didn’t like that at all,” Dickinson said. “He hated that he had to slap me. It was so against his nature.”
In 1974, producer David Gerber convinced her to sign on for the groundbreaking television show Police Woman. The series was the first hour long show in primetime history to feature a woman in the lead role, and led to a surge in employment applications among women at police departments all across the country.
Dickinson would win a Golden Globe award for playing Sgt. Pepper Anderson and was nominated for three Emmys.
“Somebody always has to be first,” Dickinson said.
“In this case, it was me.
There were a couple of other shows where women were detectives. But I was the first woman that was a cop. That was quite trendsetting because there weren’t many women cops around then.”
But if you ask her, Police Woman was not her best acting job. She points to the 1978 TV miniseries Pearl with Robert Wagner as her best performance.
The three-part six hour miniseries follows the lives of three military couples living in Honolulu leading up to the events of the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 1, 1941.
“It’s fantastic,” Dickinson said. “But nobody sees it.
And I am really good in it.” Dickinson almost starred in another hit TV series.
She turned down the role of Krystal on the primetime soap Dynasty.
“Linda (Evans) and I laugh about it all the time,” Dickinson said. “I had just finished four years of Police Woman and I did not want to do another TV show. A few years later I was at an outdoor party with (Dynasty producer) Aaron Spelling. I said ‘Aaron, whatever happened to that series you were going to do called ‘Oil” with George Peppard that you sent me?’ He rolled back laughing and almost tipped the chair over. He said ‘It’s on every Thursday night. It’s called Dynasty.’ When he sent it to me it was called ‘Oil.’ So I didn’t know that was the show I had turned down.”
Dickinson said she rarely watches her old movies today – the only exception being Point Blank and Rio Bravo.
“Once in a while I watch Point Blank just to watch Lee Marvin walk down that corridor in the Los Angeles Airport with those footsteps on his way to kill somebody,” Dickinson said. “And if Rio Bravo is on and I happen to come across it, I will watch to see what part they are on.
It’s still a wonderful, wonderful movie.”
She said she never thought of herself as a good actress.
“I think probably because it’s true,” Dickinson said.
“I think I’m good. I think I’m okay. And I think sometimes I am pretty good. But if you don’t have the part and you don’t have the director, you can’t be really good. I have always felt that I was better than the parts that were given to me. Then again, I did alright.’ As for Hollywood, Dickinson said she’s not a fan of the movies they are making today and rarely goes to see one. Instead, she watches a lot of old movies on Turner Classic Movies.
“When we get older – and I am certainly older – we never like the new stuff,” Dickinson said. “So that’s typical. I don’t say it’s bad.
I don’t like what they like and I don’t get excited over what they like. It’s just not my cup of tea. It’s not how I want to spend my time.
I’m old now. But I had a great career and it is nice to know that I am still loved.
And I know I am loved.”