An Enigma Surrounded by a Glow: Angie Dickinson

When Angie Dickinson made her first film in 1954, the native North Dakotan was better known for her long legs and sexy, wholesome glow than she was for her acting abilities. No one was labeling her the new Katharine Hepburn, but she was capable enough, and the roles kept coming.

Angie Dickinson / Angie Dickinson / Angie Dickinson / Angie Dickinson.
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Dickinson made her way into Hollywood’s history as the Rat Pack’s gal pal, starting a ten-year love affair with Frank Sinatra. She impressed people wherever she went, and even at 90, that allure hasn’t gone away. From her marriages and love affairs to her personal struggles, this is the life of Angie Dickinson.

Look Like a Lady, Be Like a Man

Born Angeline Brown in North Dakota in 1931, Angie Dickinson was the second of four daughters. Her father was a small-town newspaper publisher and editor, who worked for the “Kulm Messenger” and the “Edgeley Mail.” She said her town was smaller than small, with a population of just 700 people. But she found joy at the movie theater.

An outdoors portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Going to the movies was what most children with imagination and hope did during the Depression. However, Dickinson identified more with the leading ladies of the day than with the men. Actresses always played homemakers while the men got to be anything they wanted. Dickinson wanted to look like Marlene Dietrich but do what the men did.

Uneasy Home Life

After Dickinson’s father was sent home during WWI to care for his mother, his dreams were crushed. He wanted to be a saxophone player or a veterinarian, and he was sad that he didn’t get the life he wanted. Instead, her father became an alcoholic, which made life at home challenging.

Angie Dickinson poses for a portrait in her garden.
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Later in life, Dickinson reflected that her father’s drinking problem gave her the drive to work hard so that she would never be stuck like him. Although she loved her father and knew how talented he was, his alcoholism created a life she never wanted.

Smarty Pants

In the early ‘40s, Dickinson’s parents moved the family to California. She attended Bellarmine-Jefferson High School, graduating in 1947 when she was 15. Dickinson was a bright child and won the Sixth Annual Bill of Rights essay contest when she was 14. After high school, she studied at Glendale College to earn a business degree.

Angie Dickinson is sitting on a brick wall, wearing a cowboy hat.
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Dickinson wanted to become a writer like her father, but she got stuck working as a secretary at an airplane factory after college. However, she still dreamed of doing more with her life. At that point, she didn’t know if she could become a star, but she didn’t let that stop her.

The Handsome Football Player

While attending school, Dickinson met Gene Dickinson, a handsome, tall football player with a passion for electronics. The two started dating, and after just ten months, the couple got married in June 1952. However, after eight years of marriage, she and Gene divorced in 1960. They stayed friends after their divorce.

A studio portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Although her marriage ended, Dickinson decided to keep her ex-husband’s last name because she thought it sounded better than her maiden name, Brown. Her career was about to take off, and it also made more sense to stick with the name she had already been using for TV credits.

Runner-Up Isn’t So Bad

In 1953, Dickinson impulsively entered the local Miss America contest. She ended up coming in second place and caught the attention of a casting agent in the audience. The agent landed her one of the six coveted showgirl spots on The Jimmy Durante Show. It was the first step towards stardom.

A studio portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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The exposure on the show took Dickinson to the next level, and a producer told her to consider a career in acting. While working on Jimmy Durante, Dickinson met Frank Sinatra, and she was star-struck. It was her first time on a professional stage, and the first person she saw was him.

Television Debut

In 1954, Dickinson made her official TV acting debut in the series Death Valley Days. She played three different characters on three episodes, which opened the door for more opportunities. Dickinson then went on to appear in shows like Buffalo Bill Jr., It’s a Great Life, and Grey Ghost.

A photo of Angie Dickinson on a filming set.
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That same year, her motion picture career began with a small uncredited role in Lucky Me, starring Doris Day. As she started to get more roles, Dickinson rejected the Marilyn Monroe/Jayne Mansfield platinum blonde and would only let studios lighten her naturally brunette hair to honey-blonde.

The Big Breakthrough

After taking on a few B-movies and Westerns, Dickinson landed her breakthrough role in Howard Hawks’ Rio Brave opposite her childhood idol, John Wayne. It was a dream come true, and the cast was filled with big names like Dean Martin, Ricky Nelson, and Walter Brennan.

John Wayne and Angie Dickinson on the set of Rio Bravo.
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It was the turn of a new decade, and Dickinson was about to become one of the most prominent leading ladies of the ‘60s. She proved that she couldn’t be intimidated by a cast of tough men., She proved herself as an actress.

The Rat Pack’s Gal Pal

After meeting Sinatra on The Jimmy Durante Show, Dickinson became friends with him. He was such a powerful man, and in 1960, he got her a role in the film Ocean’s 11. Dickinson played the estranged wife of Sinatra’s Danny Ocean. The movie also starred Dean Martin.

Frank Sinatra and Angie Dickinson in a still from the film.
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By that time, Dickinson was known as the Rat Pack’s gal pal. She was the one woman they would let in the room who could beat them at poker and tell a naughty story. While her part in the movie was small, with only two scenes with Sinatra, their chemistry was undeniable.

Her Contract Was Sold

When Dickinson starred in Rio Brave, she had signed an exclusive contract with Howard Hawks. However, without her knowledge, Hawks sold Dickinson’s contract to Warner Bros. Although she was annoyed at first because he didn’t tell her, it actually put her in a better position to get movie roles.

A photo of Angie Dickinson on a filming set.
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For a time, the contract restricted her to the big screen, which really wasn’t a problem in Dickinson’s opinion. She thought that it was easy to get over-exposed. She said, “Look at Marlon Brando. He does one picture a year, and people wait in line to see him. They wouldn’t do that if he were doing it all the time.”

The Downside to Her Contract

While it might have been nice for her to have a contract with a big studio like Warner Bros., it wasn’t that unique. There were many actresses getting the same contract, like Connie Stevens and Dorothy Provine. Dickinson struggled to stand out.

A studio portrait of Dickinson wearing an evening dress.
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By the mid-‘60s, Dickinson was back on TV, but that was out of necessity because she couldn’t compete with all the other actresses she was grouped with. She started to struggle, and around this time, she was dealing with more than she could handle at home.

An Unstable Marriage

Dickinson’s personal life attracted much attention in the ‘60s because of her unsteady career and ill-fated marriage to Burt Bacharach. When she met him in 1964, her career had cooled just as his was skyrocketing. They married in 1965 in the Silver Bell wedding chapel in Las Vegas.

Burt Bacharach plays the piano in his Hollywood home while Dickinson watches.
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Bacharach was a composer who wrote iconic songs like “What’s New Pussy Cat?” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which won him an Academy Award. They were Hollywood’s most glamourous couple for a time, but not everything that glitters is gold.

The Power Balance Changed

On the night of the Academy Awards, Dickinson realized the power equation in their relationship had changed with millions of people watching. Everyone loved “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” and the dashing man who wrote it. Photographers nearly knocked her over to get pictures of him.

Burt Bacharach and Dickinson at the Academy Awards.
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Later in life, Dickinson reflected that a man like Bacharach should have never been married. He knew how powerful he was and didn’t respect Dickinson. If only Frank Sinatra had been able to commit, she never would have married Bacharach.

What Could Have Been

For ten years, Dickinson had a love affair with Sinatra. She said they got very close to marrying in 1964, a year before Bacharach proposed. However, Sinatra didn’t want to marry an actress. When he told her that, she replied, “Well, I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

A photo of Frank Sinatra and Dickinson during a party.
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Sinatra’s late-night lifestyle also wasn’t for Dickinson, but they cared for one another deeply. However, Dickinson said she didn’t want to marry Sinatra, and she was glad he never proposed so that she wouldn’t have to say no to him.

A Rumored Affair

For a long time, there was a rumor that Dickinson also had an affair with President John F. Kennedy. She has persistently denied these claims, but JFK wasn’t known for being a faithful man. Sinatra introduced them at a party thrown by JFK’s sister before the 1960 Democratic Convention.

An outdoors portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Dickinson went on to join the presidential campaign, which might be why the affair rumors started. In Jed Mecurio’s novel, “American Adulterer,” he wrote that Dickinson complained that JFK couldn’t last very long in bed. No one will ever know the truth about this rumor.

Welcoming a Child

A year after she married Bacharach, Dickinson gave birth to her daughter three months prematurely. Lea Nikki Bacharach (who went by Nikki) was Dickinson’s only child, and she didn’t have an easy life. She was only one pound, ten ounces at birth; almost no one thought she would survive.

Burt Bacharach, Dickinson, and Lea Nikki sit on the ground by the swimming pool.
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Dickinson stayed in the hospital for two weeks to heal from an infection after the birth and chose not to visit her daughter in the incubator to avoid having memories and then having to let her go. Miraculously, Nikki was still alive after two weeks, so they started to visit her.

No Touching

When Dickinson and Bacharach would visit their daughter in the incubator, no one was allowed to touch Nikki in order to protect her from diseases. Dickinson said that doctors ignored the importance of skin-to-skin contact after birth in the ‘60s. It was so hard to watch Nikki but not hold her.

A photo of Lea Nikki, and Burt.
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Nikki went home from the hospital after three long months. She was only five pounds, but Dickinson said she seemed like a normal baby. However, Dickinson and Bacharach began noticing some worrying signs before her first birthday, which caused stress in their marriage.

The Health Issues Began

Although Nikki survived against all odds, Dickinson and Bacharach noticed something was wrong. She was diagnosed with strabismus (the condition that makes the eye turn inward) at an early age. She also didn’t speak until she was three. Dickinson was constantly worrying about her daughter.

Dickinson and Nikki attend an event.
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Despite Nikki’s developmental issues, she was a natural in other physical activities including gymnastics, horseback riding, ballet, and swimming. Dickinson added that she was a naturally gifted pianist from age four. Nikki would make up songs with fast rhythms and notes that all went together.

Undiagnosed Medical Problems and a Deteriorating Marriage

For most of Nikki’s childhood, Dickinson believed her daughter was “perfectly normal.” In reality, she had Asperger’s syndrome, but no one knew because it wasn’t widely recognized. Doctors believed Nikki had autism, but her parents disagreed because she was highly functional.

A photo of Nikki and Dickinson sitting on a parking lot.
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Although it wasn’t her fault, the stress of Nikki’s health issues put a strain on Dickinson and Bacharach’s marriage. Bacharach had many infidelities, and Dickinson knew he didn’t love her. However, she held on to the relationship for a long time because of her daughter.

Another Presidential Encounter

In 1964’s The Killers (which was originally intended to be the first made-for-television movie but was released in theaters due to violent content), Dickinson played a femme fatale opposite future President Ronald Reagan in his last film role. In one scene, he viciously slaps Dickinson across the face.

A picture of Dickinson on a movie set.
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This was Reagan’s only role as a villain, and he felt uncomfortable but had to fulfill his contract. For years, he would apologize to Dickinson for slapping her even though it was for the movie. While they were filming, the news broke about JFK’s assassination, and it rocked everyone.

Acting With Marlon Brando

During the ‘60s, Dickinson played female leads in several films, including The Sins of Rachel Cade, Jessica, and Cast a Giant Shadow. Although her parts were good, they didn’t give her much screen time. After The Killers, she accepted a small role in Arthur Penn’s The Chase.

Angie Dickinson and Marlon Brando in The Chase.
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Dickinson took the minor role because it gave her a chance to work with Marlon Brando. She was in awe of him, and he made her feel part of the group. She and Brando would sit in his trailer and talk. He became less intimidating to her, but Dickinson said he liked to make people squirm.

One of Her Best Roles

In 1967, Dickinson starred opposite Lee Marvin in John Boorman’s chilling Point Blank. The noir film is regarded as her best movie of the era. She might have had a steamy sex scene, but people mostly remember her beating of Marvin.

Angie Dickinson in Point Blank.
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In one scene, she stands there beating his chest with her fists, much longer than expected, until she collapses on the floor. Director John Boorman thinks Dickinson was enthusiastic about it because she wanted revenge on Marvin for holding her upside down outside a window in The Killers.

Million Dollar Legs

When Boorman worked with Dickinson, he put her in the first miniskirt in America. It had already become a trend in London, but she was the first actress to wear one on screen in the States, and she had the legs for it. Dickinson even won the Golden Garter Award for “Hollywood’s Greatest Gams” in 1962.

A photo of Dickinson on a filming set.
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Dickinson’s legs were so fabulous that they were once insured for $1 million through Lloyds of London. Universal Pictures purchased the policy because they would have benefited if anything happened to Dickinson’s legs.

Her Career Took a Dip

Dickinson continued to work in film, but her roles were much less significant. She was in Westerns such as Sam Whiskey with Burt Reynolds and Young Billy Young with Robert Mitchum. In 1974, she made a lively, lightweight film called Big Bad Mama, a rip-off of Bonnie and Clyde.

Angie Dickinson in a still of Sam Whiskey.
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Starring opposite Tom Skerritt and William Shatner, it wasn’t one of Dickinson’s best films. Again, she has some incredibly risqué love scenes with her two leading men, and at 43, people said the nudity was breathtaking. No one could deny how stunning and ageless she was.

The End of Her Marriage

After nearly 16 years, Dickinson and Bacharach got divorced in 1976. Dickinson held on to the loveless relationship for so long in caring for her Nikki. She said, “I spoiled her. It obviously damaged the marriage, plus we had other problems.”

A photo of Dickinson and Bacharach.
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Dickinson said they should never have been married. Instead, she thought they should have “stayed in a romance, in love, and I should have walked away long before.” Their divorce was for the best, but they stayed connected because of their daughter.

Things Started to Turn Around

When Dickinson returned to the small screen for a guest appearance on the show Police Story in 1974, it was so popular that NBC offered her a television show called Police Woman. It was the first successful drama series to feature a woman in the title.

Angie Dickinson is kneeling on a bedroom floor in a scene from the show.
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Dickinson said this was ultimately why she and Bacharach ended their marriage. His career started failing while she was shifting into high gear. Her hectic shooting schedule was challenging, and she was barely home. Bacharach also declined to write the theme song for Police Woman because he didn’t think it would succeed.

Police Woman Success

The series ran from 1974 to 1978 and earned Dickinson three Emmy nominations. Her character, Sergeant Suzanne “Pepper” Anderson, was a part of a new wave of strong, resourceful female action heroes who didn’t need a man for help. She was perfect for the role.

A portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Dickinson was grateful to have the series because she loved the character’s independent spirit and willingness to go undercover as a hooker or a mole as “eye candy.” Many people tried television like Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Quinn, but few were successful like Dickinson.

Finally Feeling Like a Star

Although she had been acting since the mid-‘50s, starring in Police Woman was the first time Dickinson felt like a star. She started to get recognized on the street like never before, but her success on television proved to be the end of leading-lady film roles.

A picture of Dickinson during a party.
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In 1978, Police Woman was coming to an end, and Dickinson didn’t want to sign another four-year contract. Making the series required time and energy that she didn’t have anymore. Two years after Police Woman, Dickinson took a small role in a film, but it made a tremendous impact.

Dressed to Kill

In Brian De Palma’s 1980 film Dressed to Kill, Dickinson played Kate Miller−a sleek, elegantly dressed, unsatisfied wife who goes on a rendezvous with a stranger. The racy content was more intense than anything Dickinson had done in the past, but this role was unique.

Angie Dickinson on the set of Dressed to Kill.
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Dickinson’s 20 minutes on screen are acted in complete silence, making her performance much more extraordinary. She had asked De Palma if he wanted to put dialogue in the scene, and he had written lines, but when he saw them acted out, he knew it wasn’t necessary.

The Iconic Reverse Strip Tease

During one of her scenes in Dressed to Kill, Dickinson’s character ends up at the apartment of a stranger she meets in the museum. After a passionate night, she wakes up in bed alone, writing a note of appreciation to her mysterious lover. She then silently starts dressing.

A scene from Dressed to Kill.
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The reverse striptease became iconic, and it’s De Palma’s vision that the camera watches her, both as a lover and observer. The scene is incredibly intimate, and Dickinson held the gaze of the camera to draw the audience in and keep their attention. It was brilliant.

Feuding on Set

While filming Dressed to Kill, there were some uncomfortable moments on set. Dickinson and De Palma’s then-wife, Nancy Allen, who also starred in the film, were constantly bickering. Dickinson said that Allen hated her because she asked her to stop smoking in a small room.

A portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Allen absolutely hated Dickinson, but De Palma didn’t want to hear about the two bickering women. Despite the tension, Dressed to Kill was a sensation at the box office because of the controversy over the movie’s use of sex and violence.

A Passion for Poker

One of Dickinson’s passions besides acting is playing poker. She said she used to play every Saturday night instead of going to the popular clubs. Dickinson attended regular Sunday-night games at the Sinatras’ with Jack Lemmon and his wife, Sammy Cahn, and Gregory Peck.

An intimate portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Stuntmen taught Dickinson how to play poker at the beginning of her career, and she still loves the game. She has played in a few celebrity charity tournaments, and she is firm on her opinion that Texas Hold’Em is a dumbed-down version of poker.

The Timing Wasn’t Right

At one point, Dickinson and Johnny Carson came close to having a romantic relationship, but the timing wasn’t right. The two were close friends for years, and she was a frequent guest on The Johnny Carson Show, where she ad-libbed her most famous quote.

Johnny Carson and Angie Dickinson laugh together during an event.
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During one of her guest appearances, Carson thought Dickinson’s outfit was funny-looking. He asked her, “Do you dress for women, or do you dress for men?” She famously replied, “I dress for women. I undress for men.” Dickinson had no shame in her game.

She Still Loves Going to the Movies

Dickinson is an active member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and she loves the movies. She said she is one of the few people of her generation who still gets in line for them. However, Dickinson believes that a certain femininity is missing in today’s actresses.

Angie Dickinson attends a film premiere.
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She is a fan of Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron, but it doesn’t appeal to her when the actresses are too tough. Dickinson’s other favorite actresses are Hilary Swank and Rachel McAdams. She particularly liked McAdams’ performance in Wedding Crashers.

Making Difficult Decisions

Dickinson holds onto the happy memories she had with her daughter, but when she looks back, she doesn’t always feel like she made the right choices for Nikki. When her daughter was 14, Bacharach felt that Nikki needed some time away from Dickinson to get better.

Angie Dickinson attends an event.
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In 1984, Bacharach convinced Dickinson to send their daughter to the Constance Bultman Wilson Center. She convinced Nikki that every child goes away to school, but Nikki knew it was a hospital. Dickinson was told to be prepared for her daughter to stay between nine months to a year; Nikki was there for ten years.

The Worst Decision She Made

At the time, Dickinson and Bacharach believed that Nikki’s time at the institution was helping her, but it was the worst thing they could have done. Her stay at the hospital destroyed her, but Bacharach didn’t have any real connection to Nikki, so he didn’t care.

Angie Dickinson poses for the press.
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Nikki made friends and landed some small jobs while at the Wilson Center, but psychiatrists tried to turn her into a different person, and it was devastating for her. She spiraled out of control when a psychiatrist told her that Dickinson would die someday, so she had to be responsible for herself.

Finally Getting a Diagnosis

In 2000, Dickinson’s sister found an article about Asperger’s syndrome and realized it sounded just like Nikki. Dickinson took her daughter to UCLA, where she was finally diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. Unfortunately, it was too late, and Nikki’s condition severely declined.

A photo of Angie Dickinson.
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Loud noises like helicopters, motorcycles, and lawnmowers were too much for her to deal with, and she constantly feared that Dickinson would die. Eventually, Dickinson decided to stop working to be with Nikki, and they traveled around the world together, making beautiful memories. She hoped it would give Nikki some peace.

Coping With a Tragic Loss

In January 2007, Nikki died by suicide in her apartment when she was only 40. Dickinson said the world was too harsh for her daughter. She had trouble grieving the loss of her child. However, Dickinson was proud of her daughter because she had gifts that couldn’t be ignored.

Dickinson attends an event.
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Dickinson held on to their happy memories like watching DVDs at home and going to the movies together. Her daughter was also a fan of films and would recite dialogue from Dickinson’s filmBig Bad Mama.

Turning Down a Book Deal

Dickinson was offered a book deal to write about her life, but she turned it down because she didn’t want to talk about her alleged relationship with JFK. She even returned her advance to the publisher. According to a source, Dickinson wrote more than 100 pages but got rid of it.

Dickinson is walking the street.
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Apparently, in those 100 pages, Dickinson detailed her affair with the president. Dickinson said she thought it was best not to write a book, so she withdrew the manuscript. She said, “They wouldn’t believe me if I said it never happened. Anyway, it’s time for everybody to grow up about the Kennedys.”

This Is Your Life

In 1993, Dickinson was cast in the ABC miniseries Wild Palms. She starred in Gus Van Sant’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues with Uma Thurman that same year. Dickinson never thought about slowing her career down, except to take care of her daughter.

Angie Dickinson is pictured in her suite at the Dorchester Hotel.
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In November 1993, Dickinson dramatically walked off the set of a proposed This Is Your Life special, refusing to participate. The special was going to be a tribute to Dickinson, with special guests including Bob Hope, Bury Reynolds, and other friends waiting to honor her.

Richard Burton Creeped Her Out

When Dickinson worked on the 1960 film The Bramble Bush, she claimed she wasn’t that impressed when she met Richard Burton. He was known for having sex with his leading ladies. Dickinson got to know him and Elizabeth Taylor and remembered that they fought viciously.

Angie Dickinson in The Bramble Bush.
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Dickinson said that Burton would invite her to his dressing room to talk about sex. She said, “I won’t repeat what he said, but he liked to ask you about things that would make you uncomfortable.” It was not a pleasant experience.

Nude Scenes Were Uncomfortable

Although Dickinson had a few steamy scenes in the movies she filmed, she admitted it wasn’t easy. She felt uncomfortable taking her clothes off on camera, but she was working in a period in filmmaking when nude scenes were becoming more common and encouraged.

A portrait of Angie Dickinson.
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Dickinson said that she would have done things under covers and stayed clothed if she had a choice. However, she admitted that she was mature enough to know that this was the way things were done, so she did it because she wanted to be a good actress.

And the Award Doesn’t Go to…

Dickinson’s role in Dressed to Kill might have been short, but it was outstanding and especially because she did it without any dialogue. She regrets not trying to go for an Academy Award for that role. Dickinson believes she could have won it, but the studio didn’t want to put up the campaign.

Michael Caine and Angie Dickinson on the set of Dressed to Kill.
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Dickinson didn’t persist in going for the award because she didn’t want to win a supporting-actor award. She always thought of herself as a leading lady, even though she wasn’t getting starring roles by then. Later in life, she regretted it because it didn’t matter that it was for a supporting role.

Making a Connection With Clint Eastwood

When Dickinson was at a dinner party in the late 2000s, she found herself seated next to Clint Eastwood. They chatted about how relieved they were not to be fussed over by several makeup artists and hairdressers on movie sets. He said, “I’m glad that’s over with.”

Dickinson attends an event.
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Although Eastwood was happy to be done with that aspect of movies for a while, Dickinson admitted that she got used to it, so she feels naked going to the grocery store without makeup. She joked that “past 50, it all changes. It isn’t wrong we want to look at young, beautiful things.”

She Had Great Film Moments

Dickinson’s career has been filled with many iconic film moments, between teasing John Wayne in Rio Bravo and betraying John Vernon in Point Blank. However, right before her last role in 2009, she was asked what she considered her greatest role, and she said it hadn’t happened yet.

Cary Grant and Angie Dickinson flash big smiles as they hold awards presented to them.
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She hasn’t been in anything since her role in the TV movie Mending Fences in 2009, so we can assume she never had her most significant part. Today she is 90 years old, and although she is not acting, she is enjoying a quiet life in Beverly Hills.