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Shirley MacLaine and David Letterman Clashed in Late-Night Interview: "He's a Jerk"

The host wouldn't stop asking the actor about her believe in reincarnation.

Though an acclaimed Oscar-winning actor, Shirley MacLaine is also known for her belief in reincarnation—a subject she's written about in multiple bestselling books. Unfortunately, her sincere spiritual beliefs also made her a target for japes by comedians and talk show hosts, and never more infamously than in a 1988 appearance on Late Night With David Letterman. Her tense encounter with David Letterman led to a war of words in the press that went on for several years. Read on to find out more about this unexpected feud.

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Letterman hounded MacLaine about past lives.

Shirley MacLaine on Late Night with David Letterman in 1988

MacLaine appeared on the late-night host's show in October of 1988 to promote her film Madame Sousatzka. To her dismay, Letterman was more interested in discussing the star's famed interest in past life regression, according to a vintage article in Deseret News.

The jokes began before MacLaine even took the stage, with the host remarking, "Although this is her first appearance on our show, she insists that she has been here before." After a few moments talking with the actor about her film, Letterman started right in: "Can you look at me and see whether or not I've had other lives?"

"You're in big trouble David," MacLaine shot back, already visibly annoyed with the direction of the interview, telling him he had, "a lot of karma to clear up."

Letterman was undeterred and continued cracking jokes about MacLaine's purported past lives—as a monk, a resident of Atlantic, and a dancer in a harem—while his guest tried to shut him down. "It's just something that I feel is true," she said, adding that she had spent time in Asian countries where belief in reincarnation is more common.

"Maybe Cher was right."

Shirley MacLaine and David Letterman on Late Night in 1988

Things went quickly downhill when the show returned from a commercial break, with Letterman needling MacLaine for telling him she didn't want to talk about her past lives. She was having none of it.

"I've already said that I don't think we can get into it and you keep harping on it," MacLaine responded. "Maybe Cher was right, maybe you are an [expletive]," she added, referencing the Oscar-winning star's infamous 1986 appearance on the show, during which she lobbed the seven-letter insult at the host when asked why she'd been so reluctant to be interviewed.

Visibly exasperated with MacLaine, Letterman asked, "Are you really upset or are you pretending to be upset?"

"Can't you tell the difference?" MacLaine responded.

In a moment that took the interview from merely memorable to downright bizarre, MacLaine then offered to give Letterman "a meditation" and proceeded to grab his hair and begin to examine his head. In response, Letterman abruptly ended the interview ("Would you look at that? We're out of time.") and attempted a weak apology before again cutting to commercial. After the break, MacLaine had disappeared from the stage.

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MacLaine discussed the debacle on Entertainment Tonight.

Shirley MacLaine in 2012
Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock

A few days later, MacLaine addressed the awkward appearance on Entertainment Tonight. "[Letterman] had jokes that I think he was going to attach to each past life or something like that, but I take it much more respectfully than that, and I wasn't about to do a nickel a crack joke about what took me a year to write," she said. "He wouldn't get off it."

Entertainment Tonight host Mary Hart stated that MacLaine had "no animosity toward [Letterman]" but said a future appearance on his show seemed "questionable." Indeed, the actor would never again appear on Late Night.

Letterman admitted he likes it when guests get feisty.

David Letterman in 2011
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for IRC

Letterman offered his own reflections on the incident in a 1989 interview on Later with Bob Costas. The host and comedian admitted that while he gets a bit annoyed when his guests get combative, he still prefers a feisty rapport over talking to someone who is just there to promote themselves—but even so, he purported to still be confused by his encounter with MacLaine.

"It was a little disturbing," he told Costas. "At the time it was my perception that she was being difficult. On the other hand, having looked at it again, it seems like an argument could be made that I just didn't use the proper judgment in dealing with her. But at the time I wanted to swat her."

Letterman blamed the interview's bad vibes on the fact that MacLaine refused to conduct a "pre-interview" with his staff before going on the air. "Usually the guests will talk to our talent people and we'll put together an outline, nothing more than four or five areas of things they want to talk about," Letterman said. "It's not scripted, it's just to help them and to help me. Shirley was too busy to do that, although she claimed to have done it in a previous life."

Without that interview, Letterman said, his team prepared questions focused on "a major portion of her life, which is this past life stuff, and we thought that was fair enough." So when it turned out she actually didn't want to discuss any of that, the host was a bit flabbergasted.

"At that point you want to reach over and say, 'why didn't you answer the phone at the hotel this afternoon? We could have talked about anything you wanted to talk about,'" he added.

Both had trouble letting the incident go.

David Letterman in 2014
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Spike TV

Though contemporary news reports indicated that MacLaine left Late Night with no hard feelings, neither the host nor the actor were able to let the incident go quite so easily. Letterman made it into a bit of a running gag (something he often did with his female guests), either referencing the combative interview or mocking MacLaine multiple times on future shows, including in a Top 10 list in April 1989, twice while answering viewer mail in 1990 and 1992, and again in 2011.

MacLaine, meanwhile, had harsh words for Letterman's attitude toward her after he asked Ricki Lake, her co-star in the 1996 film Mrs. Winterbourne, whether she thought MacLaine was "nuts."

"That says more about David than it does me," MacLaine said (quoted in The Tampa Bay Times). "He's such a negative man and so caustic," adding that her beliefs "are all concerned with ancient questions … Why are we here? Where did we come from? … It all sounds so serious that I know it needs a little comic relief, but it doesn't mean I'm crazy to want to try to find the answers."

MacLaine told Oprah she's fine being the butt of the joke—as long as it's funny.

Shirley MacLaine in 2012
Joe Seer/Shutterstock

Decades later, in an interview with Oprah Winfrey, MacLaine reflected on her infamous pop culture persona as the lady who believes in reincarnation, telling the host that she actually never really had a problem with being the butt of the joke from late-night comedians. "I never felt particularly criticized," MacLaine said. "It was my truth, my experience."

In fact, MacLaine welcomed the attention. "All I ever cared about is if they made jokes about me, that they were funny," MacLaine said. "I can't stand a joke that's not funny. So when Jay Leno or Johnny Carson's…writers would call me and say they're going to make Shirley MacLaine jokes; I would help them write them. I love all these jokes because, you know, frankly, isn't being alive kind of a joke? When you get down to it, I would have to say life itself is an out-of-body experience."

Joel Cunningham
Joel Cunningham is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn. Read more
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