North Dakota-born TV star inspired many women to become police officers

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen continues the story of Angie Dickinson and the impact of her role on "Police Woman."

Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson in "Police Woman" as seen in 1974. Photo credit: Columbia Pictures Television / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum
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Did You Know That. . .

By far, the biggest increase in the percentage of women becoming police officers in the U.S. occurred during the 1970s. Much of the credit for that increase goes to Angie Dickinson and the role she played on television as Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson on "Police Woman" from 1974 to 1978.

The Los Angeles police commissioner said that prior to "Police Woman," he never heard any young women tell him that they wanted to be a police officer, and since, many girls told him they aspired to be a policewoman. In 1971, 1.4% of police officers were female. During the '70s, the percentage more than tripled, jumping to 5% in 1980. In recent years, the percentage has leveled off at about 14%.

By the early 1960s, it was apparent that Angie Dickinson, born and raised in LaMoure County, N.D., was well on her way to stardom. She had appeared in over 50 prime-time network television episodes, primarily Westerns, and had been the female lead actress in movies that starred John Wayne and Frank Sinatra. In 1960, Dickinson was awarded the Golden Globes as the “New Star Actress of the Year.”

In 1960, besides playing the wife of Sinatra in "Ocean's 11," Dickinson also had a major role in the Richard Burton movie "The Bramble Bush." In 1961, Dickinson co-starred in the movie "A Fever in the Blood" and had the title role in "The Sins of Rachel Cade." That same year, she also made tabloid headlines when Universal Pictures had her legs insured through Lloyds of London for $1 million.


In 1962, Dickinson again had the title role in the film "Jessica," which co-starred Maurice Chevalier. She also had a leading role in the movie "Rome Adventure."

In 1963, Dickinson co-starred with Gregory Peck in the movie "Captain Newman, M.D.," and in 1964, North Dakota fans were shocked to see her get “viciously slapped” in the face by Ronald Reagan in the Ernest Hemingway-based movie "The Killers." It was Reagan’s last motion picture and the only movie in which he played a villain. According to Kirk Douglas’ autobiography, “Reagan regretted doing the movie, particularly because of a scene in which he slaps Dickinson.” Dickinson said she enjoyed working with the future president and that they had a sort of chemistry on the set.

In 1965, Dickinson co-starred in the comedy "The Art of Love," where she was the love interest of both James Garner and Dick Van Dyke. On May 15 of that year, Dickinson married one of the country’s most famous songwriters, Burt Bacharach. Among his many hits were “What’s New, Pussycat," “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “A House is Not a Home,” "Raindrops Keep Falling” and “Alfie.” That year, Dickinson had her first recurring role on television, playing Carol Tredman on "Dr. Kildare."

In 1966, she joined an all-star cast consisting of Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford and Robert Duvall in "The Chase" and co-starred with Kirk Douglas in "Cast a Giant Shadow."

Then, on July 12, Dickinson gave birth to her only child, Lea Nikki, known commonly by her middle name. Nikki was born three months premature and weighed 1 pound, 10 ounces. She suffered chronic health problems and was later diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. “Dickinson rejected many roles to focus on caring for Nikki."

Because of her good working relationship with her co-star Lee Marvin in "The Killers" in 1964, Dickinson co-starred with him again in the crime drama "Point Blank" in 1967. Dickinson's next three movies were all Westerns, making "The Last Challenge" with Glenn Ford in 1967, "Young Billy Young" with Robert Mitchum in 1969 and "Sam Whiskey" with Burt Reynolds, also in 1969. In the latter movie, she is credited with giving Reynolds “his first on-screen kiss.”

For the next several years, Dickinson’s primary concern was caring for Nikki, which was becoming more difficult. She acted primarily on television and, in my opinion, the movies she appeared in were not her best. In 1971, she co-starred with Rock Hudson in "Pretty Maids All in a Row," and with Leslie Nielsen in "The Resurrection of Zachary Wheeler." In 1972, Dickinson co-starred with Roy Scheider in "The Outside Man," and in 1974 with William Shatner in "Big Bad Mama."

On March 26, 1974, Dickinson appeared on an episode of the television police anthology "Police Story." In it, she played the role of a police detective, Lisa Beaumont, who joined the vice squad. “Her appearance proved to be so popular, NBC offered Dickinson her own television show, which became a groundbreaking weekly series called 'Police Woman.' It was the first successful dramatic TV series to feature a woman in the title role.”


"Police Woman" ran on NBC for four seasons, from Sept. 13, 1974, to March 29, 1978. Dickinson played the role of Sgt. “Pepper” Anderson, an undercover police officer who worked for the “Criminal Conspiracy Unit” of the Los Angeles Police Department. Sources vary as to what was the first name of Sgt. Anderson. Was it Suzanne, or Leanne or Lee Ann?

Earl Holliman and Angie Dickinson in a 1975 publicity portrait for "Police Woman." Photo contributed by Studio Publicity / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

For the first two seasons, each 60-minute episode of "Police Woman" was aired at 10 p.m. on the East Coast, and it was a major hit. For many girls, it was the first time they had an action heroine they could watch on prime-time television, and it “caused a surge of applications for employment from women to police departments around the United States.”

But girls weren’t the only fans of the show. President Gerald Ford said it was his favorite show, and he once “rescheduled a press conference so as not to delay an episode of 'Police Woman.'”

The show earned Dickinson three Emmy nominations for best actress in a drama series and four Golden Globe Award nominations for best actress, winning the award in 1975. However, as the show drew to a close of 91 episodes in 1978, Dickinson confessed that she was growing weary of it. She said she was “tired of appearing in scenes where the phone rings while I’m taking a bath.”

The series also prevented her from accepting other offers that she wanted to pursue. It may have also affected her marriage to Bacharach because, on Sept. 12, 1978, they separated, although they remained married until 1980.

The last episode of "Police Woman" aired March 29, 1978, and later went into syndication for reruns on television. The show may have ended, but not Dickinson’s role as Pepper Anderson. Less than a month after the last episode, on April 26, Dickinson appeared as Pepper on the television special "Ringo," starring Ringo Starr. The series was also said to have influenced later women-led hourlong TV series, including "Charlie's Angels," "Wonder Woman," "The Bionic Woman" and "Cagney & Lacey."


We will continue the story of Angie Dickinson next week.

Angie Dickinson as Pepper Anderson in "Police Woman" as seen in 1974. Photo credit: Columbia Pictures Television / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons / Special to The Forum

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your comments, corrections, or suggestions for columns to the Eriksmoens at

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