"She was like a sister to me," the "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" star told Fox News. "I loved her tremendously and I still do."
Lee recently penned a memoir titled "Consider Your A—Kissed!" where she shared personal memories in Hollywood. She has worked with numerous stars over the years, including Frank Sinatra, Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Johnny Carson and Fred Astaire – just to name a few. The "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" actress also befriended many fellow leading ladies, including Lucille Ball, Julie Newmar and Gypsy Rose Lee (no relation) among others.
But one of the most difficult anecdotes the actress revisited were those involving her beloved pal.
"She was watching me when I first became a Thalian and she was president," Lee explained. "She taught me right from the beginning, she said, ‘You can go out into the world and you can ask anybody for anything so long as it isn’t for yourself. If you’re asking for somebody else, you’ll get it.’ And that has worked for us. We’ve raised many, many millions of dollars with our devotion to mental health."
"I felt very connected to it right from the beginning," Lee explained. "When the opportunity came to support mental health, especially of returning vets who were in very bad shape, it seemed incumbent upon me to do so. I’ve always had a very strong feeling for America. I was born in Canada and I’m the daughter of Lithuanian parents. So I understand how blessed we are to be Americans and how important it is to us. Americans are the most generous people on the face of this Earth. And it has been so important for me not to forget our veterans."
Lee said the lessons Reynolds taught her on giving back have always stayed with her.
"Debbie Reynolds was the girl next door that everybody adored," she said. "She was truly one of the most loving, generous people I’ve ever known. She was one of the very few people in Hollywood who put their money where their mouth is. She didn’t just talk about doing something good. She always acted upon it. She was truly an eternal Girl Scout. There wasn’t anything that she wouldn’t do for someone in need."
Reynolds’s support for the mental health of returning veterans, in particular, first arose from her USO tours during the Korean War, Variety reported. Lee said the star’s determination to give back always stayed with her until the end.
"The USO tours took me to a lot of strange, wonderful places," Lee reflected. "I mean, everywhere from Greenland to the Philippines. Fortunately, I did not have to go into war zones or anything like that. But my friends like Ann-Margret, Debbie Reynolds and Connie Stevens went into a lot of war zones. I remember I would visit hospitals and meet wounded warriors. It has been so important to us to give these remarkable men and women hope. And Debbie wouldn’t hesitate."
"These returning veterans are beautiful people who are willing to put their lives on the line for America every day," Lee shared. "And then they come back, either broken in body or broken in spirit. And somehow they fall through the cracks. We forget about them. And that’s just so wrong. America has the best of everything and they deserve the best of everything. So it has always been our goal to encourage healing the mind, the soul and spirit of our returning men and women."
Back in 2019, Lee told Fox News she missed "everything" about Reynolds.
"She was my dearest friend," she said. "My sister in charity. And adopted sister in life, too. She was what, three, four years older than me? And she was probably the most generous person I’ve ever known. She would do anything to help you. If anybody ever had a problem, she would help as best as she could. Boy, the world lost a great talent when we lost her."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.