It's a Dog's Life for New Abbey Star; Shirley MacLaine Joins the Period Drama as Martha Levinson, the Mother of Lady Cora Grantham
Byline: RICK FULTON
Oscar winner Shirley MacLaine would only take a bigger part in Downton Abbey if her dog could come too.
The 13-year-old spotted rat terrier called Terry is the love of her life and being away for just three weeks while filming her part for the third series of the STV period drama, which starts tomorrow, was a wrench.
The actress, who lives with Terry in New Mexico, said: "Can you believe this is a governing factor in my life? Of course I'd come back, but only if I can bring my dog.
"I don't like leaving my dog when I go to England and she is with me all the time.
"She's older now and so I have to leave her in a kennel. We've been together 24/7 for 13 years.
"Really that is the only thing because I love England and I love this cast."
Given America's love affair with Downton, bringing Shirley into the cast as rich American Martha Levinson, the mother of Lady Cora Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) - if only for the first two episodes - is a coup.
Shirley is Hollywood royalty and her character will ruffle the stuffy feathers of the British aristocracy, in particular the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith).
As well as winning an Oscar for Terms of Endearment, Shirley has been in a raft of Hollywood classics including The Apartment with Jack Lemmon and Gambit with Michael Caine. She is also the sister of Warren Beatty.
But her latest role in Downton was thanks to "her follicle fixer".
Shirley, who is a grandmother of two and admitted having an open marriage with ex-husband Steve Parker, with whom she had daughter Sachi, revealed: "I happened to mention it to somebody - as you do in a hairdressing place - and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elizabeth McGovern's mother would be like. I thought, 'My god, the whole world's obsessed with this show and this family.' And that's how it started."
Martha's arrival at Downton, where Dame Maggie's character The Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham reigns supreme, raises the prospect of two modern film and stage greats, locking horns.
But Shirley says their interaction, during the backdrop of the wedding of Martha's granddaughter, Lady Mary, to Matthew Crawley, is a little more subtle than just sneering and brickbats.
She said: "The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me.
"We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it's more sophisticated than that.
"Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade.
"She's very smart and to a large extent sensitive to what's going on with all her daughter's children. And Maggie's character is so well established but you have to look beyond her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands - and to some extent addresses herself to. …