HOLLYWOOD -- Diane Baker's professional acting career began by her performing a scene from the 1955 James Dean movie "East of Eden."

"I did the scene for three studios," says Baker, 71. "That's all I ever did. I never went on an audition. I got offered contracts with CBS, Paramount and Fox. My agent came to me and said, 'You got offers from all three. Let's pick the best one.' It turned out to be Fox."

Baker, who is celebrating her 50th year as an actress, has appeared in such classic films as "The Diary of Anne Frank," "Marnie" and the

Oscar-winning best film "The Silence of the Lambs." She also is a documentary filmmaker (''Ashiana") and TV producer (''A Woman of Substance").

For the past five years, Baker has been at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, first as the director of acting and then as executive director of its Motion Pictures & Television and Acting School.

Now, she's contemplating leaving her post to return to Los Angeles to produce, act and direct. She also recently received an offer to become executive director of the Documentary Film Foundation.

She recently appeared at the American Cinematheque's tribute to her at the Egyptian Theatre, where there was a screening of the 1964 William Castle thriller "Strait-Jacket," in which she plays the daughter of a hatchet murderess (Joan Crawford), and the 1965 thriller "Mirage," with Gregory Peck.

Baker first worked with Crawford, three decades her senior, in the 1959 glossy soap opera "The Best of Everything."

"She was something else," recalls Baker, relaxing in the living room of her pink Hollywood Hills home. "My God, what a character."

During the filming of "Best," though, Baker felt sorry for the actress because her husband, Pepsi-Cola executive Alfred Steele, had died recently.

"I saw her several times sitting there crying waiting for her shot," she says. "I remember getting a box of Kleenex and bringing it to her. I remember for some reason that connected with her."

Crawford was also tough on her, but the younger woman didn't kowtow to Crawford, who had won an Oscar for 1945's "Mildred Pierce."

"She would have someone come and say, 'Miss Crawford would like to see you in her dressing room,' " Baker says. "I would say, basically, 'Excuse me. I am in the middle of a meeting or talking to my acting teacher who is on the set. I will come when I can.' "

Baker recalls that Crawford was very "picky" on "Strait-Jacket," to the point she would have someone on the set taking pictures with a Polaroid.

"If there was something wrong with the way I looked or the makeup wasn't right, she would show these shots to wardrobe people and say, 'You have to fix it.' (But) it wasn't easy to sit down and have conversations with her,"