From acting to dancing—singing to activism—Shirley MacLaine has done it all and then some. With a career that spans over eight decades, her struggles and triumphs pepper her unapologetic life. Even now, her wild eccentricities and controversial comments keep making headlines. Grab some popcorn and settle down, because this story is one heck of a page-turner.
1. She Had A Calling
Shirley Maclaine Beaty was born in 1934, in Richmond, Virginia. Her love for performing was in her blood: Her father had once harbored dreams of running away to the circus and her mother was a passionate drama teacher. They must have had high hopes for their firstborn because they chose to name her after the famous actress, Shirley Temple. But MacLaine wasn't the only superstar in her family.
2. She Had A Talented Housemate
When she was only three, MacClaine gained a new sibling—a little brother named Warren Beatty. Clearly, there was no dearth of talent in this family. The siblings were very close as kids; “He was my kid brother and we were friends, in fact, allies.” She does admit though, that on some subconscious level, they competed for their parent’s attention.
Still, through her early years, sibling rivalry was the least of her worries.
3. She Had A Huge Problem
MacLaine was only three when her mother made an agonizing discovery: Her toddler had “weak ankles” which meant Shirley was constantly falling over. Determined to correct this issue before it got any bigger, her mom put her in ballet class right away. MacLaine loved the classes and never missed a single one. In fact, she enjoyed them so much that she got slightly carried away while performing.
4. She Was A Trooper
Teachers often selected MacLaine for the boys’ roles because of her height, and because of the lack of actual boys in the classes. Once though, she got the part of Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother. But just before the performance began, disaster struck: MacLaine broke her ankle while warming up for the role. Did our girl cry? Goodness no, she simply tightened her shoe ribbons and danced through the pain.
She only called an ambulance once the play was over. Of course, her onstage resilience didn't end there.
5. She Made A Bold Decision
Although she loved the stage, MacLaine soon realized that ballet wasn’t for her. Never one to overthink, she took a daring step in the direction of her dreams. She left home in the summer of her senior year to try her hand at Broadway. Luck was on her side and she landed a part as a chorus girl from Oklahoma. Once she got a taste of acting, she made up her mind.
Acting was her greatest joy. She later said, “Once I graduated from high school, there was no question what I was going to do.”
6. She Got A Big Break
One person’s heartbreak is another person’s opportunity, as Shirley MacLaine knows all too well. She got the chance of a lifetime in 1954 when the lead in The Pajama Game injured her ankle. As her understudy, MacLaine had to step in. Suddenly, she was the star instead of the chorus girl. And luckily for her, an important person in the audience was watching.
7. Her Dream Came True
Film producer H.B. Wallis was in the audience that night, and he was so impressed by MacLaine that he signed her to a five-year contract with Paramount Pictures. She made her big-screen debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble With Harry. Although the movie wasn’t a huge hit, MacLaine was. She ended up winning her first Golden Globe for “New Star of the Year—Actress.”
But she won a lot of attention too, and some of it was shockingly unexpected.
8. She Impressed The Right Person
MacLaine soon realized that her boss seemed to like hanging out with her, quite a lot. She was young and star-struck, and frankly, she enjoyed Hitchcock’s company as much as he seemed to like hers. Besides, it was harmless enough, with them just trying out new restaurants and chatting—Hitchcock airing his candid thoughts and opinions.
However, not everyone approved of their tête-à-têtes.
9. She Got A Warning
Whatever MacLaine may have expected from her meetings with Hitchcock, it's safe to say she never expected criticism for her behavior. A few weeks into their routine of eating out together, MacLaine received a call from the head of Paramount Pictures. He told her she needed to stop eating, or they’d have to “tear up [her] contract.”
Unsurprisingly, she’d gained 25 pounds from all that fine, and casual, dining. And of course, the company couldn’t have that.
10. She Wowed The Critics
After appearing in several pictures, MacLaine earned her first Academy Award and Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress in Some Came Running in 1958. Although she didn’t win, this wasn’t the last time the Academy would recognize her for her acting prowess. In fact, her next film garnered her a surprising fan.
11. She Had A Distinguished Fan
One of MacLaine’s movies to become a huge hit was The Apartment. Interestingly, she met the Soviet Premier’s interpreter after the movie came out. Although the interpreter was there to address the United Nations, she had a special message for MacLaine. The Premier sent his regards and wanted her to know that she had improved.
Apparently, he’d been quite horrified by an earlier performance of hers.
12. She Made Some Blunders
MacLaine had been filming for Can-Can when the Soviet Premier came to the US. He and his family came to Hollywood and watched the filming of a dance scene. But the scene was far more scandalous than he'd bargained for. MacLaine and the scantily-clad backup dancers ended the sequence with their “skirts over their heads and their bottoms pointing directly” at them.
Clearly, not the smartest choice of scene to show a visiting dignitary. Nevertheless, MacLaine was still a role model for people at home.
13. She Was An Inspiration
Not long after MacLaine made her mark in Hollywood, her brother Warren Beatty decided to join showbiz. He did not, however, want to ride in on his sister’s coattails. That's why he decided to use the last name his sister wasn’t using and changed it even further by adding an extra “t.” He didn’t want anyone to find out that MacLaine was his big sister.
But there may have been another reason he wanted to keep their relationship a secret.
14. She Can Hold A Grudge
A reporter once referred to Beatty as “Shirley MacLaine’s brother.” This seemingly harmless introduction riled him and he insisted that MacLaine be referred to as his sister, instead of the other way around. Everyone heard about his demand, and his sister felt very hurt by it. She refused to talk about it, and most tellingly—she refused to talk to him.
Thus began the MacLaine-Beatty cold war, but it didn’t mean the end of their relationship.
15. She Cares About Him
MacLaine admits that she and Beatty have gone through their share of ups and downs, but at the end of the day she calls him the person she has “known the longest, loved the longest...and always will.” The siblings never worked together because she doesn’t think they’d make a “good team.” On the other hand, she always worried about him, especially before he settled down and got married.
16. She’s Big On Blood
Even in the best of times, MacLaine found Beatty’s reticence about his private affairs irritating. She eventually realized that she and her Warren just had to agree to disagree on most things. She admits feeling protective of him and was especially horrified when he read out the wrong name for Best Picture at the Oscars. Now well in their 80s, the siblings are quite close.
17. She Found Mr. Right
There was no denying that MacLaine excelled in her professional career. But was her personal life a huge hit too? Well, it certainly seemed like it. When she was 18, and part of the chorus on stage, she saw businessman Steve Parker walk into the room. From that very moment—everything changed. She knew instantly that her life was about to “take a new course.”
The couple married in 1954 and seemed to be very happy together. She called him her “mate...counselor...friend,” and even “the love of [her] life.” However, their marriage was no fairytale.
18. Their Relationship Was Unusual
MacLaine certainly had her own take on love and marriage. Despite having feelings for Parker, she never wanted to be limited by monogamy: "[But] I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise, just because my love hormones were raging at the time." The result was several affairs, one after the other, often with the men she worked with.
And Parker was fine with it; in fact, their open marriage lasted 28 years. All well and dandy...right? Wrong.
19. He Used Her
MacLaine had fame and fortune as a successful movie star, but it came with a price: Her husband was a fortune hunter. She discovered him transferring large amounts of her money to his girlfriend’s account. But though it must have stung, MacLaine took a positive view of it, claiming it was a good lesson. She admitted he should have asked her before using her money, but excused him because he intended to make profitable investments...
Unfortunately, the projects all failed. Probably a blessing that she discovered about his “investments” before he completely bankrupted her.
20. She Embraced Motherhood
In 1956, MacLaine experienced a life-changing event. She became a mom. She may not have believed in commitment or a relationship that tied her down, but perhaps a baby girl would change all that. The couple named the child Stephanie Sachiko Parker and appeared over the moon at her arrival. Sadly, their euphoria wouldn't last long.
21. Her Life Turned Upside Down
Having a child at home is a full-time responsibility—one MacLaine wasn't prepared for. So, she made a shocking decision. When Sachi was only six, MacLaine and Parker moved to Japan. The reason? Pretty dramatic: A drunken nanny incident and some kidnapping threats. But that wasn't all. MacLaine didn't think Hollywood was a safe place to raise a child.
But as good as her intentions were, her parenting plan had some serious flaws.
22. She Made A Tough Decision
MacLaine insists she was a very hands-on parent for the time that she lived in Japan. Eventually, she faced a difficult choice. She couldn’t stay in Japan if she wanted to continue working. Putting her work first, MacLaine left Sachi with her dad and flew back to Hollywood. Tragically, she only got to see her daughter during Christmas and other holidays.
This decision resulted in an unbridgeable divide between mother and daughter.
23. She Filled In Some Iconic Shoes
MacLaine took on two roles originally intended for Marilyn Monroe. The latter’s passing freed up the parts for a new actor, and as such, MacLaine secured the title role in Irma La Douce. However, she wasn’t a fan of the film and found it surprising that the Academy nominated her for her performance. She shouldn’t have been though, considering how far she’d gone to prepare for it.
24. She Did Her Homework
In order to play the role of Irma, a Parisian sex worker, believably, MacLaine went to the source itself. She traveled to Paris and found that the ladies were very willing to talk to her about their lives. In fact, they seemed almost uncomfortably over-willing to bare all. They insisted that she watch them “in action” and felt insulted when she tried to politely decline.
Eventually, MacLaine agreed and watched the girls with a customer through a tiny hidden window. All for the sake of art.
25. She Was A Badass/ She Was Quite Formidable
Remember the guy who gave MacLaine her first break in the movies, H.B. Wallis? Well, he may have thought that introducing her to Hollywood gave him some kind of control over her. But if he thought he could intimidate MacLaine, he had another thing coming. He found this out the hard way when he “stuck his darn tongue down [her] throat.”
MacLaine was furious. She slapped him hard and he backed off immediately, trying to save face by gifting her a sports car the next day. Perhaps he thought that he could buy her silence. Spoiler alert: It didn’t. Still, Wallis was one bad cookie. His gross antics weren't over yet.
26. She Stood Up For Herself
H.B. Wallis' reign of terror had only begun. Next, he violated some terms in her contract. Of course, she wasn’t going to take that lying down. In true boss-lady fashion, she sued him and was eventually successful in getting her due. Thankfully, this heralded an end to the old-school system of star management. Although some sided with Wallis, MacLaine was more than capable of taking them on.
27. She Didn’t Bottle Her Feelings
Never one to keep her feelings to herself, MacLaine felt enraged when she read gossip columnist Mike Connolly’s take on her case against Wallis. So much so, that she decided to take matters into her own hands and stormed into his office at The Hollywood Reporter. Poor guy didn’t realize what was coming until she punched him squarely in the mouth.
After that exciting incident, no one dared cross the feisty actress. In fact, even the court seemed to side with her.
28. She Made History
In 1966, MacLaine sued Twentieth Century Fox for a breach of contract. They had promised her a film remake of a play and backed out of the deal at the last minute. The case made it to the Supreme Court and it finally decided in her favor. It was such a famous case that it made it to law-school textbooks as an example of employment-contract law.
If it hadn’t been clear to her employers before, it certainly was now. Shirley MacLaine was not to be trifled with.
29. People Took Her Seriously
All these incidents as well as MacLaine’s general work ethic made it clear to her co-stars that it probably was in their best interests to not make a move on her: “It was all very, ‘I’m your buddy. You can trust me.’” Be that as it may, MacLaine certainly didn’t have buddy-like feelings for all the men she worked with. Although her standards were pretty high, one man caught her eye.
30. She Was Livin’ Her Teenage Dream
She didn’t feel attracted to all her co-stars because MacLaine had a type: She liked “dangerous, and complicated” men. Why? She enjoyed trying to figure them out. And if anyone fit the bill, it was Robert Mitchum. She had no reservations when it came to diving into a full-fledged affair. Interestingly, when she was a teenager, MacLaine had had a huge crush on him; their dalliance was a dream come true. Still, this was only the beginning.
31. She Liked Variety
Interestingly, MacLaine believed she was a serial monogamist; she only entertained one relationship at a time. Considering her many conquests, this seemed like a wise move on her part. Apart from Mitchum, she also wooed Yves Montand, Danny Kaye, and an unknown Soviet director whom she named Vassy. And from her stories, it sounds like she had the time of her life with all of them.
32. She Had A Reputation
You’d think a woman as successful as MacLaine might worry about her fragile reputation. But that wasn’t her. She never thought twice about whether doing something would impact her career. That's why she flew around the world with Danny Kaye in search of good food. It's also why she agreed to be Vassy’s unofficial sponsor to America. And that wasn't all.
Her taste in men extended beyond the realm of Hollywood.
33. She Had A Political Side
MacLaine didn't shy away from pursuing men in politics; she certainly managed to “befriend” quite a few of them. From Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme to Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau—not to mention Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock—she managed to juggle colorful relationships with each man.
Not only were they her travel companions and paparazzi-dodging partners, she even opened up to them about her spiritual and metaphysical beliefs. And oh boy, those are really something.
34. She Believes In Reincarnation
MacLaine's spiritual beliefs are definitely not mainstream. She strongly believes that humans live many lives and that their souls keep showing up in different times and different forms. Because of this, she also believes that she was once a 35,000-year-old spirit’s brother, living in Atlantis. And if that isn’t bizarre enough, her past lives have also seen her as a harem girl in Turkey, a Muslim gypsy in Morocco, and an entertainer in Isfahan.
In fact, Shirley MacLaine never attends funerals because she doesn't believe that the soul has actually gone. Buckle up: The eccentricities don't end there.
35. Her Beliefs Are Out There
MacLaine strongly believes in UFOs and extraterrestrial beings circling the earth. She thinks a human’s soul could also show up in an alien and that it probably has, which is why humans are so obsessed with the idea of them. And then there are the UFOs. She’s also seen several UFOs from her home in New Mexico and believes they’re attracted to the area because it holds so many crystals.
I’m thinking she might enjoy starring in an X-Files remake for sure.
36. She Won An Oscar
After being nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress several times, MacLaine finally brought the golden statuette home for her Terms of Endearment performance. The film itself was a huge hit, and MacLaine’s acting received rave reviews. There was no looking back from here, and since then, she’s won several honors.
But her prolific career wasn't enough to win everyone over.
37. Not Everyone Liked Her
Sometimes reality mirrors fiction, and that seemed to be the case in Terms of Endearment where MacLaine has a fraught relationship with on-screen daughter Debra Winger. To say the pair didn’t hit it off in reality either would be an understatement. In fact, Winger took rather extreme measures to ensure MacLaine knew exactly how she felt about her.
38. She Rubbed Them The Wrong Way
Shirley MacLaine believed in displaying her dislike silently. Unfortunately for her though, Debra Winger did not. According to the older woman, Winger showed her what she thought of her by farting—loudly and obviously—in her direction. And if that wasn’t enough, she apparently licked her leg when she was filming a love scene with Jack Nicholson.
Still, Winger wasn't MacLaine's only antagonistic co-star.
39. She Inspired Some Strong Opinions
MacLaine worked alongside Anthony Hopkins in A Change of Seasons and the two famously didn’t get along at all. In fact, Hopkins called her the most “obnoxious woman” he’d ever shared a screen with, and said she was “overbearing and annoying.” MacLaine’s reply was a cool, “I don’t like him either.” It's no wonder that these two rivals never worked together again.
40. She’s A Doer
There are many things you might call MacLaine, but if there’s one thing no one can call her, it’s lazy. The woman has worked in over 60 films, appeared in several television shows, acted on Broadway, and as if that wasn’t enough, she's also written 12 books. Most of these books explore her keen interests in reincarnation and metaphysics.
Although she often discusses her past lives in her writing, there’s more than enough drama peppered throughout her current timeline.
41. She Felt The Sting Of Success
Of course, being so busy professionally can take a toll on one’s personal life. MacLaine reached the peak of her career but it was at a devastating cost. Her daughter, Sachi Parker, paid for it by being alone; she longed for a mother whom she could only see on screen. Sachi moved to the US in 1981, hoping to reconnect with her mom and pursue acting as well. Unfortunately, she was in for a nasty surprise.
42. She Lost An Important Connection
If you thought MacLaine would love having her daughter so close by after so long—you’d be wrong. In a tell-all autobiography titled, Lucky Me: My Life With—And Without—My Mom, Shirley MacLaine, Sachi made a full disclosure about her non-existent relationship with her mom. Once, while Sachi attended high school in Europe, both MacLaine and Parker forgot about her at Christmas. But there were other shocking revelations too.
43. She Believed In Tough Love
Apart from being negligent and largely absent from her daughter’s life, MacLaine had never helped her financially either. Sachi had to fend for herself, working several jobs as a skiing instructor, a waitress, and an au pair. She also claimed that MacLaine actively sabotaged her acting career. Perhaps she hoped to guilt-trip her mom through her autobiography...In the end, MacLaine’s response was startling.
44. She Has No Regrets
MacLaine had no time for Sachi’s grievances. She said the book was a “dishonest, opportunistic effort” from the child she had only wanted the best for, and whom she had always loved. Ouch.
45. She's Innately Curious
When MacLaine isn’t acting or writing, she enjoys traveling the world. She never had any qualms about traveling alone, in fact, she feels it not only helps her discover new places and new people, but also allows her to understand and learn new things about herself. However, there’s one place she loves more than any other.
46. She Put Down Roots
MacLaine loves her home in New Mexico, and there’s an interesting story as to how she got it. She walked in, with no intention to buy it, but sensed the soul of the previous owner, a dancer, at the top of the staircase. She also sensed that the dancer wanted her to buy it. After that, there was no turning back. She now loves spending time there more than anywhere else in the world.
She also owns a ranch about 45 miles away from her home, and she isn’t the only celebrity in the neighborhood either.
47. She Has A Famous Neighbor
MacLaine has quite the famous ranch neighbor. A skip and a hop away, Julia Roberts owns another ranch in the neighborhood. Both of them are happy with this arrangement and have maintained a friendship since their days in Steel Magnolias. In fact, MacLaine was the first one to recognize Roberts’ potential star power.
48. She Stayed Relevant
Despite her age, MacLaine has remained in the public eye. Her fame has undoubtedly stood the test of time, and newer generations recognize her from her appearance on contemporary television shows such as Downton Abbey and Glee. However, she has another theory: “If I’m click-worthy, that’s because I’m still walking upright.”
Of course, there’s another reason Shirley MacLaine keeps making the news: Her extraordinary beliefs.
49. She Sparked Controversy
MacLaine is no stranger to controversy; indeed, she doesn’t really care what people think of her. However, she made some very disturbing comments in one of her books that made some people extremely unhappy. She hypothesized that Karma caused the persecution suffered by Holocaust victims. Yikes. Talk about putting your foot in your mouth.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only shocking statement she made.
50. She Had A Strange Theory
The Jews weren’t the only subject of MacLaine’s strange ideas. She also suggested that Stephen Hawking may have willed his ALS on himself so that he could depend on caregivers to deal with his physical needs. That way, his mind could freely focus on the “pursuit of knowledge.” Naturally, the world did not find this amusing. Still, MacLaine's eccentric reputation continues to let her get away with making terribly offensive comments.
51. She Has Her Own Style
Despite all her quirks, MacLaine isn’t one to spend exorbitant amounts of money on clothes or her appearance. She’s very matter-of-fact about her brother being the beautiful one in the family. And though she’s tried botox once, she has no issues with looking her age. In fact, she lives life by the simple mantra that “if you’re comfortable with yourself...that’s when you start getting into who is your real self.”