Shirley MacLaine, With Grace And Gusto

Actress Shirley MacLaine
Shirley MacLaine won an Oscar for her role in the 1983 movie "Terms of Endearment." And at an age when other stars might be slowing down, she still seems to be just getting started. Rita Braver offers this Sunday Profile:

She sings! She dances! She acts!

And no wonder … when you consider how she got her name:

"On the way to the hospital, Shirley Temple was starring in a movie," Shirley MacLaine told Braver. "And they said, 'Let's name her "Shirley." I mean, there's no way I could have been anything different than I am!"

So maybe she was destined to be a star, shining in scores of films! And it's no secret that Shirley MacLaine believes in destiny, in UFOs, and reincarnation. She even believes she knew her dog Terry in a past life.

"Oh, yeah, she sits with me and tells me when to eat and gives me ideas."

There are lots of ideas. MacLaine has written 12 books, most of them bestsellers.

"You have so much going on in your life," Braver noted, "at all times, it seems … you keep traveling the world, you're traveling in time …"

"That's good, Rita, I like that!" MacLaine laughed.

"You're an advocate for interaction with visitors from outer space … how do you get it all done?"

"It's my jewelry! I get the intense health and energy from my jewelry."

Yes, at 74, her latest project is designing her own jewelry line, produced in her adopted home town of Santa Fe, N.M.

She calls it "sky charka jewelry," with gemstones in the 7 colors of the ancient chakra system (and the rainbow).

Just the latest chapter in a storybook career that began when she burst onto the Broadway stage while still a teenager, understudying Carol Haney, a star of "The Pajama Game" who sprained her ankle:

"I was ready to go on that night in my little chorus part, and there's Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, George Abbot, etc., looking ashen across the state door entrance and said, 'You're on.'"

She was a smash. And soon it was on to the movies.

By the time she was 30, Shirley MacLaine had racked up three Oscar nominations, for "Irma La Douce," "The Apartment" and "Some Came Running," for which Frank Sinatra personally picked her to play the party girl who falls for his character.

What did she think it was about her that cut through on the screen?

"Probably the sincerity of the character," Maclaine said. "If I didn't hit on the understanding of her and let her be who she wanted to be, it doesn't work."

Though she won kudos for playing some loose women over the years, like in "Sweet Charity," MacLaine insists she has never exuded sexuality on screen.

"To tell you the truth, if I had to play a part where I was a sexual vixen, oh, man, I don'[t know what I would do, I don't think I could play it," she said. "I had no problem being cute. Being - how should I say - erotically sexual, that's embarrassing to me."

And in real life?

"That's another story…"

In real life she married film producer Steve Parker. They had a daughter Sachi two years later. But though she was married for 30 years, Shirley MacLaine says she was neither a traditional wife, nor mother.

"He lived in Japan," MacLaine said, "and we had this open marriage."

And why did she feel she wanted to be in a marriage?

"So I wouldn't marry anybody else. I'm not one of those people who should get married."

There were lots of lovers over the years, and then there are the famous friends who line MacLaine's "wall of life" in her Santa Fe home.

"Not everybody has Dennis Kucinich and Jack Nicholson on their wall," Braver said.

"Well, I guess not."

And not everybody has pictures of a little brother who also grew up to be a superstar ... as in Warren Beatty.

"Everybody asks this all the time," Braver noted, asking anyway, "what's your relationship with your brother like now?"

MacLaine said the two grew up extremely close. "We played all day, all night, but I am three years older, so I consider myself the senior citizen and wiser of the two. That's just a fact! And sometimes he disagrees with me! But we're close enough to understand our differences."

So they talk now and then?

"Oh, all the time."

(Paramount Pictures)
MacLaine says her brother was one of the first to congratulate her on her portrayal of Aurora Greenway, Debra Winger's mom in "Terms of Endearment" (pictured, left, with co-star Jack Nicholson). It earned MacLaine her first Oscar after six nominations, but it wasn't a happy set. In fact, she quit in the middle of shooting.

"And I said as I walked off the set, 'You can take this Oscar I'm not gonna win now, and shove it up your keister, I'm leaving!'"

She came back, of course.

"When you got the Oscar you said, 'I deserve it,'" Braver said.

"I did … big time. I deserved that on so many levels … Let's move on."

Moving on, you might say, is Shirley MacLaine's mantra. Though her "out of this world" beliefs - that in past lives she has been a pirate, a Buddhist monk, a Peruvian Inca boy, a Mongolian girl, someone from the lost continent of Atlantis - have been scoffed at in some quarters, that doesn't faze her a bit.

What makes her so sure all about this?

"Oh, I'm not sure, no, it's a belief. I can't say I'm sure about anything. I did go through quite a bit of past life therapy because I love the adventure of the journey of my soul. I loved seeing what I might have been."

These days, Shirley MacLaine has become the guru of growing old with grace … and gusto. And frankly, nothing seems to slow her down.

So if she had to sum up Shirley MacLaine, who she is, what would she say?

"I'm a musical-comedy performer who dabbles in spirituality and jewelry."