Shirley Jones has experienced many successes as an Oscar-winning actress, but nothing compares to the blessings she receives as the loving mom of her three “wonderful sons,” Shaun, Ryan and Patrick. In an exclusive new interview with Closer Weekly, the Carousel actress opens up about the meaning of her family.

“I’ve raised three wonderful sons who grew up to be great men of character and accomplishment,” Shirley gushes in the magazine’s latest issue, on newsstands now. “And I love visits with my grandchildren … I am an only child, so to have all this family is amazing. You have to enjoy this moment — the now — because that’s really all we have.”

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In addition to spending time with her family, Shirley still gets a kick out of seeing her movies on TV. The actress, who won an Oscar for 1960’s Elmer Gantry, admits that it is sweet to revisit all the wonderful costars she worked with over her 60-plus years as a singer and actress. “Burt Lancaster was fantastic,” she tells Closer about her Gantry costar. “I adored him as an actor and adored him as a person.”

As she approaches her 87th birthday on March 31, Shirley feels grateful to have had so many extraordinary experiences. “You have to have a good time and enjoy life to the fullest. Before you know it, you’ll be 87,” says the performer, whose career has taken her from the Broadway stage to the big screen to The Partridge Family, where she played TV’s favorite singing mom.

Her private life, in which Shirley is the matriarch of a big family with three sons (her stepson David Cassidy died in 2017) and 13 grandchildren, has also been filled with riches. “The secret to happiness is laughter. A lot of laughter,” says Shirley, whose two former husbands, actor Jack Cassidy and comedian Marty Ingels, both tickled her funny bone. “I had a lot of boyfriends who were so boring to me,” she confides. “Jack was handsome and a leading man, but he did comedy better, and that intrigued me. Marty was very Smart, bright, a great writer and was an incredible grandpa.”

Though gifted with a remarkable singing voice, teenage Shirley planned to become a veterinarian and only attended a Broadway audition on a whim. “I was a small-town girl and had no idea who Rodgers and Hammerstein even were,” confesses the Pennsylvania-reared star. “Two weeks later, I was in my first Broadway show, South Pacific.”

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein would become the star’s mentors and make her the star of the film versions of two of their best musicals, 1955’s Oklahoma! and 1956’s Carousel. Four years later, Shirley proved her mettle as a dramatic actress, playing a vengeful prostitute in Elmer Gantry. As her career gained speed, so did her personal life. She wed Jack Cassidy in 1956 at age 22.

She confides that their marriage was passionate and all-consuming. “He was my first love and the love of my life,” she gushes. “He also gave me an incredible sex life.” But their intense love was complicated by Jack’s bipolar disorder. He drank heavily and indulged in infidelities with both women and men, as Shirley turned a blind eye.

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By 1970, Shirley was a mother of three young sons, Shaun, 62, Patrick, 59, and Ryan, 55. That’s when she decided to shift her career from films to television, so she wouldn’t have to travel for work. “I was first offered the role of Carol on The Brady Bunch, but I didn’t want to be the mom pulling the roast out of the oven,” she explains. “On The Partridge Family, I became the first working mom on TV.” Shirley also enjoyed acting opposite her stepson, David Cassidy, who was a product of Jack’s first marriage. “David and I had a great thing going then,” she recalls of the singer, who passed away in 2017.

“He would even come over to my house to help me out with my kids.” These were happy times. “I remember always wanting to go to the set with her. I was about 7 and had a crush on the little tambourine girl, Suzanne Crough [who played Tracy],” Shirley’s son Ryan tells Closer. “Some of my favorite memories were spending the afternoon with my mom, watching them do scenes and playing in the bus. I loved pretending to drive the bus.”

This happiness wouldn’t last. The Grandma’s Boy actress believes that the stratospheric rise of The Partridge Family played a part in Jack’s asking to leave their marriage. “I never wanted out,” she says. “He did it at a restaurant. He said, ‘I still love you, but we have to part for a while.’ I was in tears.” Eventually, the Two Rode Together actress came to realize that she would never be able to change Jack, who descended deeper into alcoholism.

In 1976, she refused his invitation for drinks — and reconciliation. Later that night, Jack fell asleep with a lit cigarette and died in the fire. He was just 49. “He wanted to come back right up to the day he died,” Shirley shared in her 2013 autobiography, Shirley Jones: A Memoir. “And as I realized later, I wanted him. That’s the terrible part.”

Shirley admits she probably would not have married comedian Marty Ingels in 1977 had Jack lived. But her second marriage, which lasted until Marty’s death in 2015, provided her with the security and protection she never had before. Today, she enjoys being the center of a large, loving family.