Ann-Margret’s Most Dangerous Role
By Chad Stewart
Roger Smith’s tidy office is wrapped in a thick layer of Hollywood history. The room, brimming with a lifetime of achievements, could double as a world-class museum exhibit dedicated to the career of Ann-Margret, his wife for the past 47 years.
Pristine movie posters featuring some of the biggest stars in Hollywood history adorn the walls. Among the numerous awards and framed photos sit polished plaques, dozens of military challenge coins and gold-embossed certificates to recognize her longstanding support of the military.
Hanging near a newly-minted Emmy Award is a framed black-and-white etching of a name that appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
When asked about Nelson Sayler Lehman Jr., the name on the wall, Ann-Margret pauses for a moment and explains that the Army captain was a classmate and a friend. “I went to school with him from 7th grade all the way through high school. He was wonderful.”
It’s evident that, surrounded by the accolades accumulated over six decades in entertainment, this framed reminder of a lost friend is one of the most important items in the room.
For many Americans who came of age during the Vietnam era, Ann-Margret’s support of American troops is as well-known as her storied career. She toured three times with the USO, twice traveling with the organization to Southeast Asia to perform for American service members. To this day, those who saw her performances in Vietnam tell her how much it meant to them when they were stationed in the middle of a jungle, an ocean away from home.
“All through the years, whenever I would perform, whatever city, whatever state I was in, I would get these little notes saying, ‘I saw you in Cu Chi or Da Nang.’ … They were these little crumpled up notes and sometimes they would send me a picture of me and them that they took.”
Years before she would become world-famous, Ann-Margret Olsson, then just a freshman at Northwestern University outside Chicago, embarked on her first USO tour with a few college classmates. The troupe traveled to Europe to entertain U.S. troops over Christmas break in 1960.
“We went to Iceland, where I could speak Swedish,” said Ann-Margret, who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S. as a child. “And then we went all over Germany. There were about seven of us, all from Northwestern, and it was a show called Joyride. We had a great time.”
Shortly after the tour to Europe, her professional career took off. Discovered by comedy icon George Burns in 1960, the budding star left school and moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in show business. She made her television debut on The Jack Benny Program and worked with Hollywood legends Frank Capra and Bette Davis before a performance during the 1962 Academy Awards helped propel her to superstardom. It was also her introduction to Bob Hope.
In her autobiography, My Story, she recounts the interaction. “Hope, the master of ceremonies, stepped out on the far end of the stage as the song wound to a close. I strolled over to him, gave him a long, provocative look, and disappeared offstage. [He] looked almost startled as he said, ‘Who was that? I never saw her before. I thought it was a dancing pony.’”
Soon enough, the two would share a stage again, but in a far different venue.
Virtually overnight, Ann-Margret signed on for roles in half a dozen films with the biggest studios in Hollywood and starred in the hit films Bye Bye Birdie with Dick Van Dyke and Viva Las Vegas opposite Elvis Presley.
In 1966, as her acting career was white-hot, she signed on for a life-changing role that proved to be the most dangerous—and perhaps the most rewarding—of her career.
She received a petition signed by more than 3,000 troops stationed in Vietnam. It was their not-so-subtle way of asking the star to travel overseas to perform for them—and it was effective. Amazed by the letter, she immediately felt compelled to fulfill the request.
“I wanted to go that day, but we had to work with the government, so three months later, I went.”
The star and three bandmates—Johnny Rivers, Mickey Jones and Chuck Day—teamed up with the USO and traveled to Vietnam for a 15-day excursion that would take them to the front lines of war and into enemy fire.
In her book, Ann-Margret wrote that she “regarded the trip as a moral responsibility, something I owed to the soldiers and to America. … Nothing could deter me.”
She also said that politics played no part in her decision to go.
“I went [to Vietnam] for the guys and ladies,” she said from her living room in Beverly Hills, California. “I went there for them. It had nothing to do with politics. Absolutely nothing.”
The tour was bare-bones affair that started at USO Saigon, where 400 spectators jammed into a space reserved for 200 to watch the group perform in the dense jungle air. The quartet then made its way to the USS Yorktown, an aircraft carrier operating off the coast of Vietnam, where a special surprise was awaiting.
Sailors, ecstatic to have a Hollywood starlet join them aboard the vessel, welcomed Ann-Margret by standing in a formation that spelled out “Hi Annie!” from above. As the group approached in a helicopter, Ann-Margret was stunned by what she saw.
“We were in the helicopter with nothing but sea around—and then there’s tiny little thing—and we got closer and closer. And then he (the pilot) went around it a few times. It was splendid.”
A 3-foot-wide aerial photo of the event still hangs in Ann-Margret’s home today and it continues to put a smile on her face.
“I met a gentleman who was on that ship—this was just a few months ago—and he was the part of the ‘e’ in ‘Hi Annie,’” she said while pointing out where he stood.
Years later, while shooting a movie in South Carolina, Ann-Margret and her husband took a tour of the Yorktown, now a museum ship. While touring the vessel, she said a “wave of emotion came over me. … My heart started pounding when I remembered everything.”
From the Yorktown, the tour took the group to an area in a dangerous swath of Vietnamese countryside known as the Iron Triangle. The musicians performed twice daily, often with gunfire cracking within earshot of the stage.
As they traveled to Phu Bai, about 50 miles north of Da Nang, the group’s helicopter was attacked by ground fire. Ann-Margret remembers troops bunching up to shield her from enemy bullets. She also remembers feeling invincible in that moment because of the men who surrounded her.
“I was never scared in 1966 or 1968,” she said, explaining that “my guys” were the reason why.
After a few more performances, the band completed its tour and headed back to the States. Even before she departed Vietnam, she knew she had done the right thing by going.
“Just four of us … I will never forget it.”
Two short years later, she returned to the war zone to perform for troops again—this time with Bob Hope’s USO Christmas Show. In size and scope, the second trip was nothing like the first.
Flanked by about 80 entertainers and crew members—including her husband—Ann-Margret performed for tens of thousands of troops on posts that were relatively safe in comparison to the 1966 shows. More than 20,000 showed up for the stop in Saigon alone.
With his trademark golf club in tow, Bob Hope hosted the colossal, Broadway-sized production and was the catalyst behind getting Ann-Margret back to Vietnam.
“Bob asked me,” she said, adding they previously worked on each other’s TV specials back in the States.
While she didn’t encounter any live fire on the 1968 tour, she witnessed the damage and pain it inflicted on American troops. She visited combat hospitals, thanking the wounded warriors and their caretakers for their sacrifices and tireless work on behalf of the American people—many who showed little appreciation for the men and women who gave so much.
“The thing about my Vietnam guys, (for) some of them when they came home, it was this political thing again,” she said. “They were not greeted nicely. They didn’t have people at the airports hugging them when they came home, as they should have.”
While the Vietnam War ended nearly 40 years ago, Ann-Margret’s support and admiration for our men and women in uniform continues to this day. She’s been an ally for troops and their families for decades and she’s rather humble about it.
“For anybody who has been in combat, we will never know what they have seen and heard,” she said. “All I do is sing, dance and act. That’s it. They are the ones making all the sacrifices and are incredible patriots.”
The USO honored her with its Spirit of Hope Award—named in honor of her friend and USO legend Bob Hope—in 2003. During her acceptance speech, a visibly moved Ann-Margret said, “I am so very grateful to have this opportunity to salute all of you who serve with courage, commitment and with faith in this country and in each other.”
In 2005, she reunited with Mickey Jones and the USO for a concert at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, to welcome troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan—and Vietnam. She supports the troops and vets of recent wars just as much as those who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia.
“I just want them to be on American soil and out of harm’s way,” she said, referring to current service members. “This is my feeling then and now, and always will be.
“I never get into politics. All I worry about is [the troops] … My gentlemen and ladies who love America who will fight for us so we don’t have to fight here.”
Her love of the military has also been passed down a generation. One of her children, a mental health professional in Texas, counsels vets with invisible wounds.
“She has been working one-on-one with Vietnam veterans and we’re very proud of her. She loves the [troops] just like I do.”
While her personal adoration and respect for the U.S. military has carried on through the years, the people Ann-Margret met on the two USO tours to Vietnam hold a special place in her heart.
“My experience with the gentlemen and ladies in Vietnam was one of the most important things in my life and it always will be.”
-This story originally appeared on USO.org in 2014. It has been updated in November 2019.
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