Stars align for Shirley MacLaine

U.S actress Shirley MacLaine poses during a photocall at the 37th American Film Festival in Deauville, Normandy, France, Sunday Sept. 4, 2011. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)

LOS ANGELES — In nearly 60 years in show business, Shirley MacLaine has played some unforgettable roles, met some legendary characters and had some memorable meals. And sometimes all three happened at once.

Take, for example, her story about her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1955 dark comedy, “The Trouble With Harry,” in which she brought her quirky charm to the role of the feisty young wife of the dead Harry. Hitchcock made her eat every meal with him.

“He knew I was just out of the chorus, so I hadn’t eaten for years. He said, ‘You have got to eat with me.’ We ate at the Stowe, Vt., hotel dining room. He chose, and always chose, where to shoot according to the food.”

Life has always been a banquet for MacLaine, who’s relished her multiple identities as actress, singer, dancer, writer, director, political and environmental activist, best-selling author and ardent believer in reincarnation. And the Oscar winner just received the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award.

The gala, featuring such guests as her baby brother, Warren Beatty, who received the award four years ago, and previous recipient Meryl Streep, will be shown on TV Land on June 24.

AFI chief Bob Gazzale said MacLaine’s talent “runs so deep it’s almost indescribable. Nobody on-screen can smile through the tears like Shirley MacLaine.”

MacLaine, a vivacious 78, earned four lead actress Oscar nominations — for “Some Came Running” (1958), “The Apartment” (1960), “Irma la Douce” (1963) and “The Turning Point” (1977) — before winning for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment.”

She’s as busy as ever, with a new film, Richard Linklater’s “Bernie,” with Jack Black, in theaters as she starts filming a remake of James Thurber’s “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” as Ben Stiller’s mother.

She recently returned from England, where she did two episodes of the wildly popular PBS “Masterpiece” series “Downton Abbey,” as Elizabeth McGovern’s mother.

Over lunch MacLaine is funny, frank and chatty. “I haven’t changed much with food, by the way,” she admits, smiling.

She recalled her big breakfasts with Hitchcock and then a big lunch because lunch was catered. “I remember Don Hartman, the president of Paramount, called me and said, ‘You are gaining weight. We can’t match you from one scene to another.’ ”

That same year, she worked with Dean Martin — she later became sort of a mascot of the Rat Pack led by Frank Sinatra — and Jerry Lewis in the comedy “Artists and Models.”

“It was their second to last picture and I watched the disintegration (between the two),” she said. “Dean didn’t want to take orders from Jerry. Dean was the funny one, in my opinion. Jerry was scientifically very funny. But Dean was spontaneously funny.”

MacLaine was 20 when she was discovered by producer Hal Wallis in 1954. She was the understudy for star Carol Haney in the Broadway musical “The Pajama Game.”

“That night I got to the theater. Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Jerry Robbins and George Abbott were lined up at the stage door saying, ‘Haney is out. You’re on,’ ” she said. “I had never had a rehearsal. ... I had just watched her and the lines made their way into my brainstem enough for me to get by.”

When she arrived in Hollywood, she worked at Paramount. She couldn’t get over “the line of dressing rooms. Next to me was Anna Magnani, who’d just won the Oscar for ‘The Rose Tattoo.’ Lizabeth Scott, Dean, Jerry, Danny Kaye and I think at the top was Elvis. We would all gather around the fish pond (on the lot) and talk about our lives. Zsa Zsa (Gabor) would come sashaying in every now and then. I remember she told me how I should put my real ?jewelry — like I had any — in the bank. And if I was going to get mugged, I would be mugged for the paste.

Among MacLaine’s favorite roles is that of Fran, the elevator operator Jack Lemmon’s character loves in the 1961 best picture “The Apartment.”

“We started with 29 pages. That is all there was. Billy (Wilder, the film’s director) and Izzy (I.A.L. Diamond) wrote it according to our chemistry on-screen and in real life,” she recalled. “Billy knew I was playing cards with Dean and Frank on the weekends. That’s why he put in the gin game. ... I remember one day we went to lunch — Jack and me and Billy. I was in the middle of some love affair thing and I stopped and sighed. I remember it very well. I said, ‘Why do people have to be in love with people, anyway?’ He liked that line. It’s in the gin game scene.”

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