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Shirley MacLaine Turns 90! Here Are 9 Reasons to Love This Hollywood Legend

From singing and dancing to solo hiking 500 miles at 60, she’s done it all — and that’s not even including her past lives!

spinner image Actress Shirley MacLaine posing for a portrait
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Shirley MacLaine, one of the last living legends from Hollywood’s Golden Age, has been a mainstay on the big and small screens for coming up on seven decades. She made her acting debut in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Trouble with Harry, winning the Golden Globe for best new star of 1955, and she’s still appearing in new films. To celebrate her 90th birthday, on April 24, we’ve collected nine things we love about the immensely talented, always outspoken, delightfully eccentric Oscar and AARP Movies for Grownups award winner.

spinner image Shirley MacLaine holding her shoes while in a ballet costume
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1. Broken ankles didn’t hold her back — in fact, one gave her her big break

MacLaine started dancing at 3 and studied at the Washington School of Ballet as a child. She was so tall that she was often cast in boys’ roles. When MacLaine finally landed a juicy female role, the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella, she broke her ankle backstage; not wanting to miss the opportunity, she simply tied her ribbons tighter and went on with the show. “I got to play the Fairy Godmother and turned the pumpkin into a coach, but I couldn’t cure my own broken ankle!” she told The Sunday Post. Another injury gave MacLaine her big break: On Broadway, she was understudying in The Pajama Game when one of the leads broke her ankle, so MacLaine was plucked from the chorus to step in. As luck would have it, Jerry Lewis and producer Hal Wallis were in the audience, and she was quickly signed to a Hollywood contract. She would dance again in Can-Can and Sweet Charity, and returned to the world of ballet in 1977’s The Turning Point.

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spinner image Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine and James L. Brooks holding their Oscar trophies
(Left to right) Jack Nicholson, Shirley MacLaine and James L. Brooks holding their Oscars at the 56th Academy Awards.
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2. Step aside, Meryl: MacLaine’s Oscar nominations show off her great range as well

The sixth time was the charm for perennial Academy Award nominee MacLaine, who had earned four acting nominations: one for the 1958 family drama Some Came Running, two for Billy Wilder romantic comedies opposite Jack Lemmon (1960’s The Apartment and 1963’s Irma La Douce) and one for The Turning Point, plus another for codirecting the 1975 documentary The Other Half of the Sky: A China Memoir. She finally broke through two and a half decades after her first nod, when she took home the trophy for Terms of Endearment, one of the great mother-daughter movies in Hollywood history. “I’m gonna cry because this show has been as long as my career,” she joked during her acceptance speech. “I have wondered for 26 years what this would feel like. Thank you so much for terminating the suspense.”

Don’t miss this: The Best (and Worst!) Moms in Movie History

spinner image Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine in the film Some Came Running
(Clockwise from top left) Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine star in "Some Came Running."
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3. The Rat Pack treated her like one of the guys

Nicknamed a Rat Pack “mascot,” MacLaine shared an Indiana house with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin during the 1958 filming of Some Came Running. She would later joke to Vanity Fair, “How many times did I answer the door because the cannolis had arrived by private plane from Hollywood?” MacLaine appeared in the original Ocean’s Eleven in 1960 and dotingly described the Vegas-loving crew as “primitive children who would put crackers in each other’s beds and dump spaghetti on new tuxedos.” She remained “one of the guys,” as she told The New York Times. “By the way, if I wanted to go and do some of the things I was seeing everybody else do, Frank and Dean would say, ‘Don’t do that.’ They protected me. I think they were on some level attracted to me, but they knew better. It would have sacrificed the friendship.”

spinner image Linda Blair lying in bed while Ellen Burstyn is nearby talking on the phone in The Exorcist
(Left to right) Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn in "The Exorcist."

4. She held a séance in her house and was the inspiration for a character in The Exorcist

The Exorcist novelist William Peter Blatty, a neighbor and friend, based the character of Regan’s mother, Chris MacNeil (played by Ellen Burstyn in the film), on MacLaine — notice the similar names. “Of course I was Chris MacNeil!” she told an interviewer. “Bill used the French couple who ran my house in his book, he used J. Lee Thompson as the basis for the director, and the first séance I ever went to, he arranged in my house.” She also claims that the picture on the front cover of the book is a distorted portrait of her daughter, Sachi, but Blatty denies this.

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spinner image Shirley MacLaine with Jesse Jackson at the 1972 Democratic National Convention
Shirley MacLaine, left, talks with Jesse Jackson at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
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5. She fought for causes long before it was fashionable for celebs

Born in Richmond, Virginia, during the height of Jim Crow, MacLaine put her celebrity to good use when she publicly supported the civil rights movement. During the Freedom Summer of 1964, she joined Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier and Pete Seeger on a trip to Mississippi, where she moved in with a Black family who had been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan. (Voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer was shocked to find out that the “little white lady” in her kitchen stirring the beans was none other than “a real movie star.”) In his graphic novel series March, civil rights icon and U.S. Representative John Lewis recalls the time that MacLaine came down to Atlanta to visit the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and they danced together for an hour at a party. “She would later write that I was too sweet to make a move,” Lewis writes. “She was right.”

6. She took on turning 60 in a big way

At 60, MacLaine headed out on a physical and spiritual journey when she solo trekked Spain’s Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. She covered the route’s 500 miles in just 30 days, and what she learned about herself along the way was fodder for her 2000 book, The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit. She made her way totally alone, slept in refugios (cheap shelters), begged for food and essentially meditated as she walked for 10 or 11 hours a day. “The hardest thing was for me not to make friends,” she later told Oprah Winfrey. “Because everybody’s going through the same thing, and you want to share what you’re going through about your life. What was fascinating, I think I thought about love affairs and men and what to do about all that maybe an hour combined. So I was kind of finished with it and had such wonderful memories, but no regrets and no sense of wanting … really being rather satisfied but allegiant to who I was and who I wasn’t.”

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7. She claims to have been an Egyptian princess and Charlemagne’s lover, among other doozies, in her past lives

Over the decades, MacLaine has expressed a keen interest in New Age spirituality, touching on meditation, psychic encounters, UFOs and especially reincarnation in her many autobiographical books. In this life, she’s been an actress, dancer, singer, director, activist and author, but in past lives, MacLaine claims to have been — deep breath — an androgynous being in the Lemurian (pre-Atlantis) time period, an Egyptian princess, a medieval warrior, an orphan raised by elephants, a Moorish peasant girl, a member of a harem in the home of a Turkish pasha, a geisha and a model for the painter Toulouse-Lautrec. And she sees reincarnation in others around her as well: She believed she’d been a lover of King Charlemagne, who was reborn as her later boyfriend, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme, while her rat terrier Terry was the reincarnation of the jackal-headed ancient Egyptian god Anubis.

spinner image Shirley MacLaine in a scene from the film Defending Your Life
Shirley MacLaine in "Defending Your Life."

8. She’d been a good sport about it all — until David Letterman pushed her a little too far

She didn’t mind taking a role spoofing herself in Albert Brooks’ 1991 afterlife comedy, Defending Your Life, as the holographic host of the Past Lives Pavilion, where the recently deceased could see images of themselves from previous incarnations. But when Letterman kept harping on the topic throughout an interview in which she was clearly uncomfortable, she pushed back: “Maybe Cher was right; maybe you are an a--hole.”

spinner image Shirley MacLaine standing in a garden in a scene from American Dreamer
Shirley MacLaine in "American Dreamer."
Everett Collection

9. She’s turning 90 with no signs of slowing down

Over the past decade or so, MacLaine has popped up in buzzy projects: Glee, Downton Abbey and Only Murders in the Building, Hulu’s star-studded mystery dramedy. This March, she costarred in the indie comedy American Dreamer as a childless widow who sells her mansion to a professor for pennies, with one catch: He has to allow her to keep living there until she dies. But MacLaine’s career appears immortal.

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