Listening in on 'Valentine's Day' co-stars Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo

Susan King
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Shirley MacLaine and Hector Elizondo are discussing ways of coping with the loss of a loved one—the four-legged kind.

Elizondo still gets choked up when he talks about his late cats, especially Ninja, a pure black Burmese he and his wife once owned.

"There was a long period of tangible loss," he tells MacLaine. "I wouldn't for days vacuum her fur. ... I couldn't let her go that way."

The Oscar-winning MacLaine ("Terms of Endearment") is besotted with Terry, her rat terrier who was the subject of her book "Out on a Leash" and is featured prominently on her Web site.

"I have an agreement with Terry that when she goes that she has to come back as soon as possible and I will try to find her," says MacLaine, a noted spiritualist who famously believes in past lives.

Besides animals and the great beyond, the two touch on many topics during a recent interview, including childhood memories and the demands of returning to the stage at their age. But one doesn't so much interview these award-winning veterans but toss them a question and eavesdrop as they banter back and forth like an old married couple, which is what they play in Garry Marshall's new comedy, "Valentine's Day." It opens Friday.

Sort of a full-length "Love, American Style," it features an all-star cast including Jamie Foxx, Queen Latifah, Anne Hathaway and Julia Roberts.

Surprisingly, MacLaine, 75, and Elizondo, 73, had never worked together before "Valentine's Day." Still, says Elizondo, "I felt like I have known her all my life."

It helps that the two have a lot in common. They both began performing as youngsters, have danced professionally and made their mark on stage.

MacLaine was just 19 when she was cast as an understudy for Carol Haney in "The Pajama Game" on Broadway in 1954. The night she stepped out of the chorus and into Haney's role, movie producer Hal Wallis happened to be sitting in the audience and signed MacLaine to a contract. MacLaine made her film debut in Alfred Hitchcock's 1955 thriller comedy, "The Trouble With Harry," and never looked back, appearing in such classics as "The Apartment" and "The Turning Point."

Elizondo's career kicked into high gear when he was in his early 30s in Bruce Jay Friedman's off-Broadway comedy "Steambath," for which he won an Obie Award as God in the guise of a Puerto Rican steam bath attendant.

He soon began appearing in such films as the original "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three," "American Gigolo" and the TV series "Popi."

"When you have that kind of history and you have the same references, that for me is very comfortable," says Elizondo.

The two also felt equally comfortable with Marshall. Elizondo is the director's good luck charm, having worked with the filmmaker since Marshall's first film, 1981's "Young Doctors in Love."

"He doesn't so much shoot a movie but throw a movie," says Elizondo.

"... with the food and the jokes, he creates a party," adds MacLaine, who is working with the "Pretty Woman" director for the first time.

"I think he reminds us of our parents and grandparents," says MacLaine, diving into a plate of small cupcakes. "You don't know what the hell he is talking about with his use of syntax. The result is you don't know exactly what he wants you to do, so you tend to look in yourself and make stuff work, which you wouldn't do if you had a director being more specific."

There's also a clip in "Valentine's Day" of a love scene from one of MacLaine's early films, 1958's "Hot Spell."

MacLaine remembers everything about that day 52 years ago when she locked lips with actor Warren Stevens.

"I remember I hadn't had breakfast," she says, smiling. "I remember I was breathless like I was in the scene."

Elizondo also remembers the time he was in sixth grade and sang in a school play. "I had this high tenor voice, and I could swing," he recalls. "I thought my last name was 'sing' for a long time. My father would say, 'Hector, sing.'"

He chose to sing the earthy "St. Louis Blues." "I had no idea what the song was about," he says, as MacLaine starts laughing.

"So there was applause, and I had to sing it twice. My father and mother were in the audience, and my overdressed uncle was out there."

After the show, his family went backstage along with an elderly black man with dark glasses, who happened to be the song's composer, the great W.C. Handy.

"I had no idea who he was," says Elizondo.

"He said you have a gift and you have to develop it. My uncle was beaming. The next thing I know I am at some rehearsal studio on 57th Street and I was auditioning for the 'Okey Dokey Ranch,' the precursor of the 'Howdy Doody Show.'"

But after one performance, Elizondo walked away. "I said, 'I don't like to do that, Daddy.' That was the end of my show business career until my early 20s, when I got back into it."

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