updated 06/08/2012 AT 2:05 PM ET
•originally published 06/08/2012 AT 4:00 PM ET
John Travolta returned to the spotlight Thursday for the first time since sexual abuse allegations against him made headlines last month.
At the 40th American Film Institute Life Achievement Awards in L.A., the actor turned up as a surprise speaker to pay tribute to the night’s honoree, Shirley MacLaine.
When it came to ’70s movie musicals, it was MacLaine who helped get the ball rolling with her 1970 Golden Globe nominated performance in Sweet Charity. Travolta, meanwhile, capped off the decade with his robust 1977 Saturday Night Fever and 1978 Grease.
“Shirley MacLaine is first a dancer. And when you move from Broadway to film to television to writing to directing, you have to move through these things with the grace of a dancer,” Travolta, 58, said in his prepared remarks about MacLaine, 78. “To train, to push harder than you had ever thought you could. To be aware of every move you make down to the tips of your fingers and toes.”
His presentation marked Travolta’s first major public appearance since his name was linked to a series of legal actions filed by masseurs alleging improper conduct by the star. Travolta’s attorney has fiercely denied all the allegations.
While none of that came up during Thursday’s tribute – which was taped to air on TV Land Sunday night, June 24 – leave it to the always outspoken guest of honor to add her own salty dash of dialogue to the proceedings.
“I want to thank all the fabulous costars, male, that I have worked with,” MacLaine told the assembled toward the end of evening. “Those I’ve made love to on the screen, and those I’ve made love to off the screen. I swear I remember maybe half.”
Then, after a pause, she added, “I just remembered two more.”
Reporting by SCOTT HUVER