It would be hard to find many people in town with better stories to tell than Angie Dickinson, from starting out in the business on Jimmy Durante’s variety show to dating Frank Sinatra to working with legendary director Howard Hawks.
The stunning septuagenarian is a warm and witty storyteller who enjoys talking about her fabled past -- even as she keeps moving forward with her newly revived career.
Dickinson had been on a self-imposed hiatus from acting since the death of her only child, 40-year-old daughter Nikki Bacharach, in early 2007. “I didn’t feel like working at all, of course,” she says, wistfully. But now she’s returned to the screen in the Hallmark Channel family drama “Mending Fences,” which premieres Saturday.
Dickinson plays feisty Ruth Hanson, a woman who is struggling to keep her Nevada farm going despite the fact that the town’s water supply is mysteriously drying up. Laura Leighton (“Melrose Place”) plays her estranged TV newscaster daughter.
Dickinson laments that there are not many good roles for actresses her age. “A lot of us got older all at once,” she says while eating at Jerry’s Deli in L.A. “I am not that eager to work. But when I do, I find that I love working. I love the acting process.”
Acting wasn’t her first career choice. In the early 1950s, while a secretary near the Burbank Airport, she entered a local beauty contest and placed second (makes you wonder who came in first). Shortly thereafter, she got a call to be on Durante’s TV variety show.
“They assumed that if I was in a beauty contest, I was trying to become an actress,” she says.
“But I was just killing time, more or less. I was unhappy in my personal life -- not a good marriage.”
Her life changed the day she reported to work on Hollywood Boulevard at the Masonic Temple “where Jimmy Kimmel does his show now. Frank Sinatra and Durante were rehearsing their number. You can’t imagine hearing the two of them playing and having fun. It was just magic. I knew what I wanted to be.”
Dickinson became one of the Durante showgirls. “I had some lines here and there. That’s how I got started.”
While keeping her secretarial job, she worked on Durante’s show and took acting classes four nights a week. “I knew it was a rough business to get in it,” Dickinson says.
But within a year, she quit the steno pool and became a full-time actress. Dickinson, who was married to composer Burt Bacharach from 1965 to 1980, dated Sinatra on and off when both were unattached. The two even played husband and wife in the first Rat Pack feature, 1960’s “Ocean’s Eleven.”
“He was very exciting and totally unpredictable,” Dickinson says. “And generous to a fault.”
She also acknowledges his well-known temper, but offers an explanation. “When you are in the spotlight all of those years, when you know they are all looking at you when you walk in a room, it’s hard to live with that day in and day out.”
Dickinson’s first big movie was Hawks’ 1959 western classic “Rio Bravo,” with John Wayne and Dean Martin, in which she played the Duke’s enigmatic paramour, Feathers. Dickinson was recommended to Hawks by director Christian Nyby (“The Thing”) after he had directed her in an episode of “Perry Mason.”
“When I got the part, I said to Howard, ‘I have always heard that if you can work with Howard Hawks and George Cukor, you’ve got it made.’ And he said, ‘Well, you know why they say that, don’t you? They mean we do your thinking for you!’ ”
Perhaps Dickinson’s biggest success was the 1974-78 NBC series “Police Woman,” for which she earned a Golden Globe award and Emmy nominations as L.A. police officer Sgt. Pepper Anderson.
“Police Woman” paved the way for such female-driven cop shows as “Cagney & Lacey.”
It was while she was filming a guest stint as Pepper on the NBC anthology series “Police Story” that the producers thought her character would make a great spinoff.
But Dickinson initially turned it down. “Producer David Gerber came to the set of ‘Big Bad Mama’ and I said to him, ‘I can’t do it. I have a family.’ He said, ‘Don’t you want to be a household name?’ ”
It was an offer Dickinson couldn’t refuse.
“No question it paid off,” she says now. “Would I do it all over again? I don’t know, but probably.”
Dickinson also initially turned down her role as a sexually frustrated housewife in Brian De Palma’s acclaimed 1980 thriller “Dressed to Kill.” When she first received the script, she thought she couldn’t play the nudity-filled role because she was “Police Woman.”
But De Palma was insistent.
“He said, ‘I have to have you. I have to have somebody who is well-known enough that they like her immediately, because I don’t have time to build your back story, and someone who is willing to die in the first 30 minutes. And you’re it.’
“I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ He said, ‘What if I get a body double?’ Then I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘Well, then let’s go to work.’ ”
Heritage Square Museum is in the midst of its annual Silent and Classic Movie Nights. On Saturday, the museum will screen an early Douglas Fairbanks adventure, 1917’s “A Modern Musketeer.” For more information, go to www.heritagesquare.org.