After retiring from films in 1950 at the age of 21, Temple returned to the spotlight as a politician and diplomat.
She died on Monday at home in Woodside, California, from natural causes. “She was surrounded by her family and caregivers,” a statement said.
Born in 1928, Temple soon became a major star after getting her first film role at the age of three.
Her singing, dancing and acting won over fans worldwide. She was given a special juvenile Oscar in 1935, when she was just six years old. To this day, she is still the youngest person to receive an Academy Award.
With the nickname “America’s little darling”, she was ranked as Hollywood’s biggest draw for four years running from 1935 to ’38 in an annual poll of US cinema owners.
Her rendition of the song On the Good Ship Lollipop in the film Bright Eyes was among her most famous performances.
Her other films included Curly Top, The Littlest Rebel, Baby Take a Bow and Little Miss Marker.
She was such a hit that US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt dubbed her “Little Miss Miracle” for raising morale during the Great Depression and she was credited with helping save 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy.
Temple starred in a total of 43 feature films – but found it difficult to sustain her career in adulthood and left acting behind in 1950.
She continued to appear on television, but that work dried up and she eventually stepped away from the spotlight.
When she came back into the public eye, it was in a new guise. Under her married name Shirley Temple Black, she ran as a Republican candidate for Congress in 1967 but lost.
Richard Nixon later appointed her as a member of the US delegation to the United Nations General Assembly before President Ford named her the US ambassador to Ghana in 1974.
In 1989, she was made the US ambassador to Czechoslovakia shortly before the fall of the country’s Communist regime.
She considered her background in entertainment an asset to her political career. “Politicians are actors too, don’t you think?” she once said.
In a statement announcing her death, her family said: “We salute her for a life of remarkable achievements as an actor, as a diplomat, and most importantly as our beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and adored wife for 55 years of the late and much missed Charles Alden Black.”
Stars paying tribute on Twitter included actress Whoopi Goldberg. “The Good Ship Lollypop has sailed today with Shirley Temple aboard,” shewrote, describing her as a true one of a kind.
Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote: “One of the most talented and brightest stars in the world has gone to the sky. A genuine phenomenon.”