SHE BELIEVES firmly in reincarnation and that her dog was once an Egyptian god and at 80 the actress is still taking on new roles.
When Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine took the prime minister of Sweden Olof Palme as a lover in the 1970s she knew she’d seen him somewhere before.
Then it came to her. Of course! When they’d last had sex 1,200 years earlier he had been Charlemagne the Great, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and she had been a Moorish peasant girl with a knack for curing impotence in men.
With her eccentric views on reincarnation and extraterrestial life MacLaine has long been a celebrity interviewer’s dream. And that’s not about to change.
Now 80 she shows every sign of growing old disgracefully. In her latest film Wild Oats she plays a widow who hits the jackpot when she is sent a social security cheque for $900,000 rather than $900.
Instead of pointing out the mistake she and her best friend head to the Canary Islands for the adventure of a lifetime.
In real life MacLaine has no need of a misprinted cheque from the folk in government. With an estimated net worth of £30million she lives in some style, dividing her time between a gated estate in Malibu, California, and a ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico.
She continues to make a film a year and has recently supplemented that work with a high profile cameo role in Downton Abbey as Lady Crawley’s outspoken mother Martha Levinson.
“My whole identity is now Downton Abbey,” she joked late last year. “In airports and other places I go they say, ‘Downton Abbey, when are you coming back? I say, ‘Well all right but what about my last picture?’ Then I can’t remember what it was anyway.”
I went to Machu Picchu in Peru with a man who said he’d had a love affair with an extraterrestrial - Shirley MacLaine
When she joined the set she told her cast mates “that I fell in love with someone on every picture I ever made for the first 30 years”.
That roll-call of lovers included Robert Mitchum, Dean Martin, Danny Kaye and Yves Montand. (Off-set there were three top politicians: Canada’s prime minister Pierre Trudeau and Australia’s foreign minister Andrew Peacock, as well as Palme.)
On Downton, MacLaine suggested that she and her co-star Dame Maggie Smith could have been “lovers in another life” and later confessed to developing a “cougar crush” on Brendan Coyle, 50, the actor who played Lord Grantham’s valet Bates.
No wonder Rob James- Collier, who plays gay footman Thomas Barrow, said : “Spending two weeks with Shirley MacLaine should be a series in itself. She’s absolutely bonkers but delightful. I had some great chats – I’ll never forget half of them and the other half I can’t repeat.”
Her barminess appears to have been inherited from her father, a violin-playing psychology and philosophy professor called Ira Beaty . He and his drama teacher wife Kathlyn, herself a frustrated actress, named their daughter after Shirley Temple, the child star who had her sixth birthday the day before MacLaine was born.
The couple appear to have been determined to realise their own creative ambitions through first Shirley and then their son Warren, who went on to add a “t” to his surname and gain fame as bedhopping superstar Warren Beatty.
When Ira was asked in later life about his children’s amazing success he would wink and say he’d always done his best work in bed.
MacLaine studied ballet as a child but grew too tall at 5ft 7in to be a ballerina and switched to acting. Winning the job of understudy to a starlet called Carol Hanley in Broadway hit The Pajama Game proved the entrée to the big time when Hanley broke her ankle.
Spotted by a movie producer from Los Angeles she became an international star within a year after being cast in the Hitchcock hit The Trouble With Harry, a part for which she won a Golden Globe as new star of the year.
In 1954 she married Steve Parker, an American businessman who spent most of his time in Japan, and their daughter Sachi is now 57. The couple were not divorced until 1982 but MacLaine later admitted it had been an open marriage and both parties had numerous affairs.
In the years that followed she starred with Frank Sinatra in Some Came Running (1958) and opposite Jack Lemmon in The Apartment (1960) and Irma La Douce (1963), winning the Golden Globe for best actress for the latter two.
She had to wait another 20 years to win her first and only Oscar for her potrayal of middle-class Texan widow Aurora Greenway in Terms Of Endearment.
Despite her mainstream success, MacLaine never lost a preoccupation with UFOs and reincarnation. Her interest in alien spacecraft began at 18 with news reports that UFOs had buzzed the White House and President Truman had ordered fighter pilots to shoot them down. Sixty years later she still campaigns for secret papers on extraterrestial matters to be made public. “Argentina, China and France have done it,” she insists. “Why can’t we? I think the unknown is traumatising to people.”
While MacLaine stops short of claiming to have been abducted by aliens she insists they have been spotted at both her homes. One guest at her New Mexico ranch allegedly saw three UFOs overhead as he relaxed in her hot tub.
In her 2007 book Sageing While Ageing she wrote: “I went to Machu Picchu in Peru with a man who said he’d had a love affair with an extraterrestrial. He said he was still being guided by her. The Peruvian roads are steep, narrow and dangerous. He took his hands off the wheel, closed his eyes and the car was ‘driven’.”
Her claims about reincarnation are equally lurid. At various times she has insisted her many pasts have included lives as a medieval warrior, an orphan raised by elephants, a Japanese geisha and a model for post-impressionist painter Toulouse-Lautrec.
Even her beloved pet rat terrier Terry is, MacLaine is convinced, a reincarnation of the jackal-headed Egyptian god Anubis.
“I have never known friendship and companionship like it,” she said recently. “We sleep cuddled up together every night so it’s a good thing I don’t have a man in my life.
“I would rather have a good, loyal dog than a man. It’s taken a few years to come to that conclusion and I’m happier for it. My love for Terry brings me to tears.”
The bad news is that experts say the life expectancy of a rat terrier is 15 to 18 years. As Terry is 14 this throws up the terrifying possibility that MacLaine will outlive her canine companion. What then for the woman who has been described as “mad as a fish in a raincoat”?