She's Having the Time of Her Lives

updated 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/26/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

There was a time when Shirley MacLaine could easily be identified as a versatile, pretty actress, something of a maverick, slightly but endearingly off-the-wall. That is no longer the total Shirley. Today, at 52, she is still those things but also many other people—among them a suicide victim from fabled Atlantis.

MacLaine has discovered spiritualism, and since the publication in 1983 of her psychic autobiography, Out on a Limb, she has embarked upon a second career and won tens of thousands of new fans—and surely drawn as many skeptics. An enthusiastic disciple of channeling—the process of contacting spirits beyond the grave and the galaxy—she has done more than anyone to focus attention on this suddenly chic phenomenon (see following pages). This week ABC is airing a five-hour miniseries based on Out on a Limb, starring Shirley, which will win national exposure for this New Age soul-searching.

But the question remains: Is channeling bogus or genuine? Two incidents that occurred during the filming of Out on a Limb give fodder to both arguments. The incidents involved Kevin Ryerson, a popular channeler from Santa Barbara, Calif, who claims to communicate with the spirit of a 2,000-year-old scholar named John. The first event took place after Ryerson's channeling session had been filmed, when John was still "present." The crew asked him how the $13 million miniseries would fare in the ratings. Speaking English much like Yul Brynner in The King and I, John said, "It will get the highest share of anything on TV this year."

Pretty savvy for a man who lived 20 centuries ago. But before you write channeling off, consider the second incident. During a trial run of a channeling session, MacLaine tried to help Ryerson out of his chair while he was still in a trance. As soon as she touched him, MacLaine began shaking, went pale and became so drained of energy that shooting had to be called off. No matter how outlandish channeling might sound, MacLaine's physical reaction was quite real. Something happened.

The actress' experiences with spiritualism began in the mid-'70s, and as impressive as her reincarnation résumé now is, it makes you wonder: By going so far out on a limb, has she gone out of her tree? Those who have made earthly contact with her recently think not. Contrary to rumor, says Limb executive producer Stan Margulies, MacLaine isn't giving up acting for full-time channeling and she hasn't turned into an ear-bending fanatic. "She doesn't proselytize," says Margulies, who also produced Roots and The Thorn Birds. "She doesn't belong to the, Shirley MacLaine Theosophical Temple Synagogue. She only says, 'This is what I tried and it worked for me.' There is an equanimity and serenity about her that I think has been achieved by her spiritual odyssey."

Even a skeptic like actor Charles Dance—who plays MacLaine's British lover, Gerry, in Limb—has gained grudging respect for channeling. "This whole subject is the easiest thing in the world to be cynical about," he admits, "usually by people who have no knowledge of it or who don't wish to."

For all her efforts, the attention MacLaine has drawn to channeling may be misplaced and ultimately beside the point. "Whatever she does is good for her," says one of her former lovers, director Andrei (Runaway Train) Konchalovsky, a nonbeliever. "But the main thing she should do is act. When she is reincarnated to something else in the next life, people will remember her as a great actress—not as a great medium or a great writer."

From Our Partners