She began her career working with some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Betty Grable, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, but 1958’s South Pacific launched Mitzi Gaynor’s career into the stratosphere. “What a privilege and a joy it was to have that chance,” Mitzi, 92, tells Closer exclusively of the Rodgers and Hammerstein romantic musical. “And to know it still entertains audiences around the world.”

To play Navy Ensign Nellie Forbush in the film, Mitzi, then 25, beat out several better-known actresses, including Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day and Mary Martin, who had originated the role on Broadway. “I could sing and I could dance,” she says of her advantage over Elizabeth, while Doris and Mary were deemed too mature to play the ingenue role.

In Kauai, Hawaii, where filming commenced, Mitzi became fast friends with Italian film star Rossano Brazzi, who played her love interest Emile de Becque. “Filming the movie on location was hard work, but thrilling just the same,” she says. “I adored working with Rossano. I would tease him in my best Italian and say, ‘Rossano, you are the most gorgeous, the most talented, the most handsome man in all of the movies,’ and he’d answer, ‘Mitzi Gaynor…I know.’ I mean how could you not love that?”

A critical and popular favorite, South Pacific would become the fifth highest-grossing film of 1958. Mitzi, who is one of the few actors in the film who do their own singing, would star in other films but find career longevity in nightclubs, TV specials and as a recording star. “I wouldn’t have the opportunity,” she says, “if I hadn’t made South Pacific.”