HOLLYWOOD - Diane Keaton first began dreaming of becoming a movie star when she was a little girl, but never openly expressed that dream to anyone.
"I come from extremely sensitive stock," says Keaton, now 62. "We were all very sensitive people. I was not only sensitive, but cautious and fearful. Accepting how far I've come, I can only assume that my childhood desires for movie stardom overshadowed my fears. I loved the movies and wanted to be a part of that.
"But I would never have said that to anyone. I believed that if you owned up to your fantasy, then it would surely fall apart. I kept it to myself and just kept pursuing my dream quietly.
"I'll never forget the moment that all that changed. I was standing backstage in a theater when I was doing Woody's play 'Play It Again, Sam,' when another actress said to me: 'If I don't make it by the time I'm 23, I'm quitting the business.' What she said terrified me because I was 23. It was time for me to admit out loud that acting was going to be my life."
Keaton was born in Los Angeles, graduated from Santa Ana High School, she attended one semester at what was then Santa Ana College and one semester at Orange Coast College. She left OCC after one of her drama instructors advised her to go to New York City to study her craft. She was accepted into noted drama teacher Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse.
From the Neighborhood Playhouse, Keaton joined a theater group based in Woodstock, N.Y., and later won the part of an understudy in the original Broadway production of "Hair." She got her first bit of show business buzz when she became the only member of the cast to refuse to take off her clothes in the musical.
Woody Allen cast her in his play "Play It Again, Sam," which led to her first film role in "Lovers and Other Strangers." Her role as Michael Corleone's girlfriend Kay in "The Godfather" followed shortly thereafter, and then came eight films with Allen, including her Oscar-winning performance in "Annie Hall."
"The Oscar couldn't have come at a more opportune time," she says. "But it was a total shock. I had never been nominated for anything before, and it was extremely rare for any performance in a comedy to be recognized. And I didn't even do an accent."
But while the Oscar made her a star, Keaton acknowledges that she didn't fully take advantage of the good fortune.
"I was a late developer and, at 30, I was too overwhelmed to take advantage of it. I wish I had been more enterprising at the time. I was offered a clothing line but I didn't do it. I was foolish. All I did was sit around and wait for the next Woody Allen movie. I would do things differently now.
"Time changes everything."
In her current film, "Mad Money," Keaton stars as a comfortable, country-club type who finds herself down on her luck after her husband is downsized out of a job. She is so desperate for money to pay the bills that she takes a job as a janitor at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City. With two new friends and co-workers, played by Queen Latifah and Katie Holmes, she hatches a plan to steal money that is headed for the shredder. "I took this role for two reasons. The first is that I love physical comedy, and I never get to do enough of it. Woody's comedies were all verbal.
"The second reason is that I love the message of this movie, which is not just the female bonding aspect (the movie was directed by the queen of female bonding movies - Callie Khouri of "Thelma and Louise" fame), but the idea that good things can happen to you no matter what age you are. You should never think that your life is over and that you can't learn new things or have new experiences just because you've reached a certain age."
It is understandable that Keaton might identify with the movie's message.
She has enjoyed an enviable "second act."
Her acting career was moving along at a steady but unremarkable pace (the "Father of the Bride" movies in 1991 and 1995 were the most noteworthy of the bunch) until director Nancy Meyers cast her opposite Jack Nicholson in the hit comedy "Something's Gotta Give." She was nominated for an Oscar, her fourth Oscar nod after "Annie Hall," "Reds" and "Marvin's Room."
She has directed two films ("Unstrung Heroes" and "Hanging Up") and is producing movies (her most notable effort was director Gus Van Sant's take on schoolyard shootings, "Elephant").
Her personal life also has undergone a dramatic upheaval in recent years.
Never married, the actress adopted two children (her daughter Dexter is 12, and son Duke is 7), published seven books, works feverishly on the board of the Los Angeles Conservancy to preserve historical architecture, buys and restores old homes and just started her own furniture company - Keaton Manufacturing Co.
"I'm doing all the things now that I was too fearful to do when I was younger," she says. "I'm smarter and more experienced, but it also has to do with my children. It is important that I remain vital and energetic for them. It's important for me to take on new adventures, and that makes this a great time in my life.
"It is so great," she adds, "that I can see one day giving up acting and becoming a full-time businesswoman. I mean that. If my new furniture company is successful enough for me to make a living at it, I could give up acting.
"I could never say that before, but I'm not fearful anymore."