Why Ann-Margret Was in The Who’s ‘Tommy’ Despite Pete Townshend’s Objections

TL;DR:

  • Pete Townshend initially felt Ann-Margret was a poor fit for the film version of The Who’s Tommy.
  • He contrasted Ann-Margret’s voice with that of Tina Turner.
  • Ann-Margret was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance but lost.
Ann-Margret on a bed in 'Bye Bye Birdie'
Ann-Margret in ‘Bye Bye Birdie’ | Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

The Who’s Tommy is one of the most famous classic rock albums ever. Ann-Magret played a major role in the film version of Tommy. Subsequently, Pete Townshend discussed why he initially thought her casting in the movie was a bad idea.

Pete Townshend said a producer insisted on casting Ann-Margret in The Who’s ‘Tommy’

In his 2012 book Who I Am: A Memoir, Townshend discussed producer Robert Stigwood’s input into Tommy. For context, Stigwood is most known for producing Saturday Night Fever and Grease. “Stiggy set about casting the film with [director] Ken Russell, and I began to interfere,” Townshend wrote.

“I disagreed with them on the inclusion of veteran actor Oliver Reed (playing Tommy’s stepfather), as well as the more Hollywood choices of Ann-Margret and Jack Nicholson,” Townshend continued. “Stiggy’s explanation of the Hollywood star system was succinct and persuasive: ‘We-Have-To-Have-Them.'”

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Pete Townshend revealed why he changed his mind about Ann-Margret and her style of singing

Townshend took issue with Ann-Margret as a singer. “Ann-Margret I knew nothing about, and I thought her voice was too musical theater for Tommy,” he said. “But she convinced me the moment we started to record.” 

Townshend appreciated Ann-Margret’s theatricality. “She displayed real passion, a sense of the absurd and an ability to make the songs her own; she sang in a drawling theatrical way — more Ethel Merman than Tina Turner — but it worked well,” he wrote. “And of course she’d been in a movie with Elvis. The Who were small beer in comparison, yet she was respectful, and an amazingly hard worker in the studio.” For context, Townshend was talking about Elvis’ movie Viva Las Vegas.

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How ‘Tommy’ and its film adaptation performed with the public and with critics

Tommy, the album that inspired the film of the same name, was a massive hit in the United States. It peaked at No. 4 on the Billboard 200, staying on the chart for 126 weeks. None of The Who’s other albums lasted as long on the Billboard 200.

The Official Charts Company reports Tommy was a more modest hit in the United Kingdom. There, it peaked at No. 2 and stayed on the chart for 11 weeks. 

Meanwhile, the film Tommy was a commercial hit. Box Office Mojo reports the film made over $34 million worldwide. For her performance in the movie, Ann-Margret was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress. She lost to Louise Fletcher for her role as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Townshend eventually embraced Ann-Margret’s casting in Tommy and so did the Academy.

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