Shirley MacLaine: 'Nobody knew what to do with me,' says AFI Life Achievement Award honoree

shirley-maclaine-afi-lifetime-achievement-award-gi.jpgShirley MacLaine has had many big nights in her six-decade career, and this weekend, she shares one of the biggest.

The "Terms of Endearment" Oscar winner was feted by friends and peers ranging from Warren Beatty -- MacLaine's brother -- and Jack Nicholson to Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep when she became the 40th recipient of the American Film Institute's annual Life Achievement Award on Thursday, June 7. Taped at Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City, Calif., the event will be shown Sunday (June 24) on TV Land.

"There are people in that audience who weren't even alive when I did what I did when I started," MacLaine marvels to Zap2it about those in attendance. "I wonder what they think of me! It's been a long and varied career, and how it looks when it's all put together is a big part of this."

MacLaine insisted on her AFI table-mates being "the women I've worked with," including Streep -- who played her daughter in "Postcards From the Edge" and presented the award to her -- and her "Steel Magnolias" co-stars Roberts and Sally Field.

"I talk to young people today who ask me for advice, ask how I did it," MacLaine says, "and I don't really have any advice. It all happened so quickly. My advice would center around how you handle it, how you know who you are, how you become self-aware early enough. I mean, it happened to me when I was 19."

shirley-maclaine-young.jpgAt that age, MacLaine became a Broadway star in "The Pajama Game," then was summoned to Hollywood and made her screen debut for director Alfred Hitchcock in "The Trouble With Harry." The ensuing years would see her make such classics as "Around the World in 80 Days," "The Apartment" and "Irma la Douce," with "Sweet Charity," "The Turning Point" and "Being There" among other standouts.

For as long as she's been in the public eye, MacLaine has pretty much lived her life on her own terms. "I was never really troubled by the paparazzi," she says, "though today, that is a mess. I don't know whether I have my family or my teachers to thank for that discipline. I just know what works for me and what doesn't."

One thing that did was MacLaine's cameo in the original 1960 version of "Ocean's 11," as a Las Vegas hotel patron who drinks too much on New Year's Eve ... to the chagrin of Dean Martin, whom she literally throws herself at. MacLaine didn't get on-screen billing in the film, "but they gave me a car. I needed to put a telephone in one, and you couldn't do that with a rented car. I said to Frank [ Sinatra], 'Let's do it. I don't care if I get any money for it. Just give me a Ford.'"

Though the bulk of MacLaine's work has been for the big screen, she's also had several rounds with television, notably the early-1970s ABC sitcom "Shirley's World" and the same network's 1987 miniseries version of her largely metaphysical best seller "Out on a Limb."

"It was so interesting of [then-ABC Entertainment president] Brandon Stoddard to do," MacLaine says of the latter project, "He told me he didn't know whether to put such a thing on the air or not, but his mother read the script that Colin Higgins and I wrote ... and she told him that if he didn't put it on the air, she would never speak to him again!"

TV also is in MacLaine's immediate future, since she joins the cast of "Downton Abbey" in Season 3 of the acclaimed PBS drama starting in January. She's also in front of the cameras now, working with Ben Stiller on a feature-film remake of "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." As long as there are roles that still appeal to her, then, the career-crowning AFI Award won't mean MacLaine is slowing down.

"Nobody knew what to do with me anyway," she maintains of the vast range of parts she's had. "I was not a Hollywood glamor girl; I guess I was basically a young character actress. And that means you have to change it up every time."
Photo/Video credit: Getty Images
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