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Stars align for a legend

In her 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 very 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, bestselling author and ardent believer in reincarnation. On Thursday, the Oscar winner adds another honor to her plate: She’s receiving the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award at Sony Pictures.

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The gala, which will feature such guests as her baby brother, Warren Beatty, who received the award four years ago, and two other previous recipients, Barbra Streisand and Meryl Streep, will be shown on TV Land on June 24.

“I only worked with her once and we were playing, if not adversarial characters, characters who chafed against each other,” said Streep who played MacLaine’s daughter in 1990’s “Postcards From the Edge.” “That’s hard with her because she’s so ingratiating, so much fun and so interesting on every subject.”

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.”

Asked why it had taken so long for the organization to honor her, Gazzale said, “Shirley likes to joke that we waited until 2012 because 2012 is the year of alignment and this is a sign. The American Film Institute waited until the stars aligned in 2012 to shine a proper light.”

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MacLaine, a vivacious 78, earned four lead actress Oscar nominations -- for 1958’s “Some Came Running,” 1960’s “The Apartment,” 1963’s “Irma la Douce” and 1977’s “The Turning Point” -- before finally winning on her fifth try for 1983’s “Terms of Endearment,” playing one of the screen’s great mothers, Aurora Greenway.

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

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

“I love [series regular] Maggie Smith. I have known her for 40 years,” MacLaine said. “She told me that we met at an Oscar backstage thing. I was either presenting or I was up for something and I lost. We were standing next to the catering table and there was this huge chocolate cake.” MacLaine said that after she lost, she ate half the cake, telling Smith, “I don’t need to be thin anymore.”

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Over a lunch of Chinese chicken salad and quesadillas -- she also asks for extra nuts to munch on -- MacLaine is funny, frank and chatty. “I haven’t changed much with food, by the way,” she admits, smiling.

She recalled her breakfasts with Hitchcock -- “eggs, bacon, French toast, waffles and fruit every morning and then a lunch like that 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. Why are you sabotaging yourself?’ ”

That same year, she also 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.”

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MacLaine was 20 in 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 watched her in the wings. [Star] Johnny Raitt sang one of my songs because I didn’t know my key. 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, she was having a thing with Hal Wallis, 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 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. She would say, ‘It’s worth it, daahling.”’

MacLaine is only the seventh female recipient of the AFI life Achievement Award since the first honor was given to John Ford in 1973. Streep was the last woman honored -- she received her award in 2004. She’ll be presenting the honor to MacLaine on Thursday evening.

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Streep recalled that in her acceptance speech she looked out at the actresses in the audience and said it was “appalling that I got it and people like Shirley MacLaine and Debbie Reynolds and the [female] giants of our industry have not.”

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

And, of course, she has a story about it.

“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. We got new pages every day. 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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susan.king@latimes.com


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