Chris Erskine: Lunch (and a selfie) with legend Angie Dickinson

Chris Erskine and Angie Dickinson after lunch at El Coyote.
Angie Dickinson, with her saloon soulmate, after their lunch at El Coyote.
(Chris Erskine / Los Angeles Times)

For my birthday, I treat myself to lunch with Angie Dickinson, whom you think of as a Hollywood star, but I think of as a muse, a mentor and a surrogate mom.

Leave it to me to pick a mythic bombshell as a mother figure.

“Dr. Freud, cleanup on Aisle 2! Dr. Freud!”

Yep, at 88, she is still all that, though fame is a funny thing. Most of us would hate it — the loss of privacy, the fickleness of it — even as we’re drawn to the people on which the sun shines brightest.

Oh, Angie. Lunch with her is the most comforting thing. Because, no matter the roles she had with John Wayne and her fling with Sinatra, she’ll always still be Angie Brown from Burbank.

“I’m really from North Dakota, you know,” she says as a point of pride.


But not long there. She remembers being trapped indoors by snow that filled the front doorway. Dad moved the family out here when she was 10. A good thing for her. A better thing for Burbank.

When we first started hanging out, all I could ask about were her relationships with JFK and Sinatra and her genre-busting role in “Police Woman.”

Now we talk about family. She wants to know about my daughter’s April wedding. Not sure Angie approves of all the usual customs and fuss. She was married twice, and neither worked out. The love of her life might’ve been Sinatra, but lots of folks can say that.

Most famously (there’s that word again), she spent 16 years with Burt Bacharach, the most romantic songwriter of all time. Was there ever a more beautiful couple?

“It’s not much,” Angie says as she gifts me a silk pocket square Bacharach left behind.

Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson arrive at the Oscars in 1976.
(Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

It’s a treasure, but so is she. She is feisty and tough and complains about forgetting things. I assure her that she is so whip-smart to begin with, she can afford a few slips.

She’ll still beat you at poker. She’ll still tell a better joke. What is that, star power? Charisma? No, it’s Angie Brown from Burbank.

Men adore her. Up in some sports bar in heaven, my dad’s looking down. Alpha actresses like her were everywhere in the ’60s and ’70s. She was his fave.

“Dr. Freud!!!”

I had a date with Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island” this summer, and my buddies like to kid that Ann-Margret must be very worried. “Is Connie Stevens next?” they ask.

Look, I’ve always loved older women. Part of my shtick, at luncheons and dinner parties, is to say that women don’t really peak till 75 or 80. It’s probably one reason I don’t get invited to many luncheons or dinner parties.

But as with any joke, there is truth to it. Resilience is such a turn-on for me, honestly. I like it in friends, I like it in dogs, I like it in movies and books. By nature, I am sort of wistful ... sort of a Sinatra song, with occasional bursts of laughter. Mostly, that comes courtesy of the people I’m around. And it’s not by accident.

I seek out Angie’s company not because she was a big star with a butterscotch smile. It’s because at lunch, she rakes her purse for her wallet, instead finds a magnifying glass, charms the waitress, offers to give me poker lessons, says that at night she waters down her Trader Joe’s wine so it’ll last her the week.

Trust me, she has a few bucks. Don’t cry for Angie and her wine. Admire her for her honesty and her mirth. When you’ve weathered the Great Depression in snow-blasted North Dakota, there are some lessons you never unlearn.

You know, this isn’t the city I signed up for. I expected Los Angeles to be awash in ego and excess, riddled with veneers, brimming with phonies. There are a few, sure. At last count, four in Culver City, two dozen in Beverly Hills (mostly at the agencies).

Really, it’s a city with 4 million little novels, most of them fetching.

“Karaoke sucks in L.A. because the people are really good,” my daughter grumbled at dinner the other night.

Other than that, I think of it like most towns. Some dreams come true. Most don’t. So what do you do? Roll out of bed each day, steady yourself as your feet hit the floor, take a breath, get on with it. Live.

That’s what Angie still does — my mother, my muse.

Outside, I can smell the ocean. We pause in the El Coyote parking lot for a birthday selfie. To fans, she is Feathers from “Rio Bravo” or Pepper from “Police Woman.”

To me, she’s Angie Brown from Burbank, my lunch pal, my saloon soulmate.

Hey, Dad! Are you catching this?