Angie Dickinson

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Angie Dickinson Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 16/10/16

In 1996, the actress Angie Dickinson did the unthinkable. Like her British counterpart, the footballer Danny Blanchflower in 1961, she walked off the television program ‘This Is Your Life’, leaving its host, Ralph Edwards, and a collection of Dickinson’s family, celebrity and hometown friends stranded on the set.

When asked why she had refused to allow the assembled crowd to honor her, she replied, ‘All these people are supposed to come around and rave about you. I think they should have organized it the other way around, so I could have talked about their importance’.

Dickinson may well have been uncomfortable with the near sychophantic tone of the show, but she is also the custodian of Hollywood secrets, involving everyone from leading stars to high ranking Hollywood moguls and US Presidents. Devoid of editorial control, one may surmise that she instinctively perceived no other course of action available to her.

In her 70’s heyday, Angie Dickinson stepped into the iconic role of Pepper Anderson, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Department, in the groundbreaking show, Police Woman,’ proving that strong women have a place on the small screen and in the American workplace. Her stint in ‘Police Woman’ began in 1974, just as the feminist movement was at the political forefront. Her strong-willed, competent character helped demonstrate to America that men and women could work together without romantic entanglements.

The series had come at a timely moment, as her film career was in terminal decline, due in part to the passing of the studio system, and her voluntary self imposed exile following her marriage to the composer Burt Bacharach.

Born Angeline Brown on Sept. 30th 1931 in Kulm, North Dakota, Angie was the daughter of Frederica and Leo Brown, the latter an editor at the local newspaper. In 1942, shortly after the start of WWII, Angie’s parents moved the family to Burbank, CA, looking to take part in the many war production jobs springing up on the US west coast. Angie later graduated from the Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles in the early 50s. In 1952, she married college jock and future semi-pro football player Gene Dickinson. Married and working as a secretary, Angie decided to enter a local beauty contest, which got her noticed by a producer of the popular NBC variety show The Colgate Comedy Hour. That won her a bit part on the show and a permanent infection from the acting bug. Thereafter she began taking acting classes, earning her first dramatic role in a 1954 episode of the syndicated western Death Valley Days. Once again, it was small beginnings for much bigger things to come.

By the middle of the late 1950s, Angie was an oft seen face on many a TV show of the day, most of them part of the then wildly popular western genre. Shows like Gunsmoke, The Virginian, Have Gun – Will Travel, Cheyenne, The Restless Gun, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Colt .45 and Wagon Train all featured Angie in various one-off roles. And while westerns were where it was at then, Angie did other kids of shows as well, like The Fugitive and Dr. Kildare. While these shows helped get her career off and running, Angie’s marriage to Dickinson had stalled out by 1956, resulting in a separation. They divorced in 1960. The reasons behind this break up remain a private matter, yet it hardly requires rocket science to understand her husband’s unease with her cinematic career. Jealousy is not conducive to an enduring relationship, although many would disagree. Heading off to the office whilst one’s partner films erotic scenes with a leading man, hardly represents normality. Small wonder therefore, that so many actors marry actresses, for whilst professional jealousies may ultimately rip them apart, understanding the surreal existence of a three month shooting schedule remains par for the course. In any event, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

Undaunted by this change in her personal life, Angie won her first movie lead in 1957 as a madam fighting communists in the Sam Fuller film China Gate,’ a release also notable for a big screen appearance from singer Nat King Cole. Another big part came the next year with the thriller Cry Terror.’

Instantly attracted to the glamour of Hollywood, Dickinson’s first experience forever moulded her career especially after meeting Frank Sinatra, who she later described as the most important man in her life. “It was my first show, my first step onto a professional stage,” Dickinson recalled. “I had not even seen one before. I had come from work in a fill-in job and I stepped on the stage, and there were Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Durante working. I just walked in and thought, ‘Oh my God, this is what I want to be a part of.’”

By the end of the 1950s, she’d made her way into film as “Feathers” in the Howard Hawks eastern Rio Bravo starring John Wayne. She went on to star in The Bramble Bush and rekindled the spark with Sinatra in 1960 when she was cast as his on-screen wife in Ocean’s 11. By then, their affair was well-known with Dickinson later describing their 10-year secret saying, “It was wonderful, it was kind of perfect, but I don’t think he ever had a great passion for me, which is why I think it lasted as long as it did. And I for him. There’s a difference between having to have something and wanting something.”

Amid their affair and Dickinson’s blossoming career, Sinatra introduced her into the Kennedy’s inner circle at the tail-end of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign. Dickinson even attended the inaugural ball with one of the family’s closest friends, Paul “Red” Fay Jr., who later wrote in his 1966 memoir that he was only there as a “beard” as Kennedy flirted with Dickinson the entire evening. For Dickinson, the rumour and Fay’s accusations were far from the truth with many arguing that Dickinson isn’t one to kiss and tell, which is why she pulled her manuscript from the publisher with “all the details of her affair with the President intact.”

As for her career, Dickinson enjoyed steady work throughout the 1960s before becoming a household name in 1974 as the star of NBC’s police drama, Police Woman. Making history as the first female lead in a successful television drama, Dickinson earned a Golden Globe Award for her performance before wrapping up the series in 1978. In 1980, she turned heads for her erotic performance in Dressed to Kill but quickly faded into the shadows with sporadic appearances in Pay It Forward and Big Bad Love before retiring from acting in 2009, just two years after her only daughter—from her 15-year marriage to Burt Bacharach—took her own life after battling Asperger syndrome for 40 years.

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