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Fred Astaire, Dancer Extraordinaire
Fred Astaire was simply unique and irreplaceable.
He could dance like no one else.
Rudolph Nureyev rated him the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and he is generally acknowledged to have been the most influential dancer in the history of filmed and televised musicals.
The films of Fred Astaire with Ginger Rogers transformed the movie musical forever, and in them he proved that he wasn't just a dancer -- he was a talented actor and comedian too.
Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899. His father was Frederic E. Austerlitz, an Austrian immigrant and traveling salesman. His sister Adele, older by eighteen months, showed a talent for dancing at an early age, and although only four years old, young Fred accompanied his sister to ballet school.
The team gave their first professional performance in November 1905 in Keyport, New Jersey. Fred was 6 1/2 years old, Adele 9.
They grew up grew up dancing together in vaudeville, and were bonafide stars while still in their teens and twenties. Although neither Fred nor Adele was especially good looking, they were both slim, stylish and agile dancers.
They made their their Broadway debut in Over the Top (1917). There followed appearances in The Passing Show of 1918, Apple Blossoms (1919), and The Love Letter (1921). The Astaires became virtual stars in two 1922 shows, For Goodness Sake and The Bunch and Judy, then, after a season in London, earned lasting recognition as the stars of Lady, Be Good! (1924). Another success, Funny Face (1927), followed, but Smiles (1930) was a failure. Their last joint success was The Band Wagon (1931), in which they sang and danced "Hoops" and "I Love Louisa." When the revue closed, Adele retired to marry an English lord, so her brother appeared alone in what proved to be his last Broadway show, Gay Divorce (1932). The musical gave him the chance to introduce one final great song, "Night and Day."
Fred now agreed to test for films. One studio executive's report on this screen test has been quoted many times over the years: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances."
Despite this Astaire did receive a contract and he and his brand new wife Phyllis headed for Hollywood in 1933. He was cast as an accordion player in a musical love-triangle story called Flying Down To Rio(1933). His female counterpart in the film was an up-and-coming RKO contract player named Ginger Rogers, and after their one dance number together stole the picture from the three stars. Fans of the film besieged the studio with demands to see more of those two funny people who danced in the middle of the picture. Fred and Ginger became the silver screen's most popular dancing duo.
They made a total of nine musicals together at RKO between 1933 and 1939, and though Ginger made several other comedies and solo musicals between her films with Fred, Astaire made only one film without Rogers -- Damsel in Distress (1937) with Joan Fontaine. It was the only film of his career to lose money at the box-office.
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More than just a dancer in his films with Rogers, Astaire proved himself an accomplished choreographer. With the help of RKO dance director Hermes Pan, he spent months experimenting with new moves and developing fresh routines for the films. The easygoing air that became his trademark both in his tap solos and tap/ballroom numbers with Rogers resulted from hours of painstaking work.
The Astaire-Rogers series are among the top films of the 1930s. They include The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine musicals he created became the biggest moneymakers for RKO; all of the films brought a certain prestige and artistry that all studios at the time were looking for.
Thank you Fred and Ginger
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By 1940 Fred and Ginger's popularity had waned and both decided to go their separate ways. Fred was wary of the possible repercussions of being again known only as part of a pair, and Ginger was anxious to try her hand at more serious dramatic acting.
Fred left RKO at the end of his contract and for the next few years made several musicals with various partners including Rita Hayworth in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and a memorable pairing with Gene Kelly in Ziegfield Follies (1946).
In 1948, Gene Kelly was scheduled to make Irving Berlin's Easter Parade with Judy Garland, but he broke an ankle and MGM talked Astaire out of his "retirement" to fill in. The great success of the film led the studio to plan another Astaire-Garland vehicle for the following year, but this time it was Judy who had to pull out due to illness, prompting Fred's reunion with Ginger Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), their tenth and final film together.
He then went on to make more musicals throughout the 1950s including Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell, Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera Ellen, The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) with Cyd Charisse, Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron, and Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn.
It was during the making of Daddy Long Legs that Phyllis Astaire, after being ill for some months, died of cancer. Fred was devastated, but due to his professionalism, he completed the film.
His legacy now was thirty musical films in a twenty-five year period. Afterwards, Astaire announced that he was retiring from dancing in film to concentrate on dramatic acting, scoring rave reviews for the nuclear war drama On the Beach (1959).
Fred continued to appear in movies as well as television shows throughout the 60's and 70's. For his performance in 1974's The Towering Inferno he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. He was also reunited with Gene Kelly in That's Entertainment, Part 2 where he did his last on-screen dancing, at the age of 77. (Although he was quoted as saying, "That wasn't dancing, that was just moving around.")
In 1978 Fred was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1981 he received the American Film Institute's prestigious Life Achievement Award.
Fred got married for the second time in 1980 to Robyn Smith, a young woman who shared his devotion to race horses (she was a jockey).
Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, from complications arising from pneumonia. He was buried at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California, next to his beloved Phyilis, his mother, Ann, and sister and most successful partner, Adele.
Fred Astaire Resource
- Fred Astaire
All about Fred Astaire, one of Hollywood's most famous male stars and the cinema's most accomplished dancing genius.