He had several memorable dancing partnerships, including with his sister, Adele, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse and Eleanor Powell but his name will always be linked with that of Ginger Rogers. Their unique chemistry, technical brilliance and innovation in a total of ten memorable films have enchanted generations of moviegoers and forever changed dancing as portrayed in movie musicals.
Astaire was named fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time on The 50 Greatest Screen Legends by the American Film Institute. He won one Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance (non-dancing) in 'Towering Inferno' in 1974.
BiographyFred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. His father was an Austrian immigrant, born in Vienna and he had one sister, Adele, who was older by eighteen months. Adele showed early promise as a dancer and began to take lessons. Fred, although initially reluctant, began to accompany her, and he, too, showed that he had an inborn talent.
In 1904. when Fred's father lost his job, the family moved to New York in order to further the children's dancing education. They were enrolled in a performing arts school, one of the few which taught modern tap dancing as well as singing and acting, and it took less than a year before Fred, aged 6, and his sister were giving their first professional performance, on stage in New Jersey in November, 1905. It was around this time that they changed their name to the more English sounding Astaire in preparation for their professional future.
Fred and AdeleAll the promise shown by Fred and Adele was fulfilled during the next decade as they became a stylish and skilful pairing, first in vaudeville on the Orpheum circuit around the USA and then, as their expertise increased and their repertoire expanded, they graduated to Broadway where they made their debut in 1917 in a show called 'Over the Top'. Throughout their partnership they were constantly seeking to broaden their knowledge by incorporating new dances such as the tango and tap and they quickly became well known celebrities.
During the 1920s their fame spread across the Atlantic. They appeared frequently on the London stage as well as on Broadway in shows such as George and Ira Gershwin's 'Lady Be Good' in 1924, 'Funny Face' in 1927, and 'The Band Wagon' in 1931. Their popularity continued right up to 1932 with Adele's retirement when she married an English aristocrat, Lord Charles Cavendish, and the partnership had to end. In that year Fred appeared alone in 'Gay Divorce', his last Broadway show. An independent future beckoned, free from the constraints of a brother/sister partnership and that future lay in Hollywood.
In 1932, the same year that his partnership with Adele ended, Fred gave a screen test for RKO and was signed up with the famous report: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances."
Fred got married in 1933, to the 25 year old Phyllis Livingston Potter, a New York socialite, and he and his new wife moved to Hollywood. In the same year he made his movie debut on loan to MGM in 'Dancing Lady' with Joan Crawford.
Ginger RogersHis next movie, also in 1933, was his first under his RKO contract and it made history. It was called 'Flying Down To Rio', and it brought Fred and Ginger Rogers together on screen for the first time. The actual stars of the movie were Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond but it was Fred and Ginger who stole the movie with their rendition of 'The Carioca'.
The public clamoured for more and RKO put them together again in 'The Gay Divorcee', released in 1934, a remake of Fred's earlier stage success. Fred and Ginger became Hollywood's most popular and famous partnership and they went on to make a total of nine films together during the 1930's including such masterpieces as 'Top Hat' in 1935, 'Follow the Fleet' and 'Swing Time' in 1936, and 'Carefree' in 1938. They also made a less successful reunion movie in 1949, 'The Barkleys of Broadway'.
During this period of immense success, Ginger continued to perform without Fred in comedies and solo musicals. Astaire made only one film without Ginger - 'Damsel in Distress' in 1937 with Joan Fontaine. It was one of the few Astaire movies to lose money at the box-office.
After 1940 both Fred and Ginger were ready to go their separate ways. Ginger went on to become one of RKO's hottest stars in the early forties, winning a Best Actress Oscar for her performance in 'Kitty Foyle' in 1941. Fred continued to make movie musicals with several different partners including Eleanor Powell - one of the finest ever female tap-dancers - in 'Broadway Melody' of 1940', Rita Hayworth in 'You'll Never Get Rich' in 1941 and 'You Were Never Lovelier' in 1942, and Lucille Bremer, firstly in the disappointing 'Yolanda and the Thief' then the enchanting revue 'Ziegfeld Follies', both in in 1945. This last also featured "The Babbit and the Bromide" danced by Astaire partnered by Gene Kelly for the first and only time apart from a compilation movie 'That's Entertainment II' in 1976.
The relative box-office failure of 'Yolanda and the Thief' caused the ever-sensitive Astaire to seriously consider retirement, and for two years he refrained from making movies and set up his chain of Fred Astaire dancing schools, a successful venture which he eventually sold in 1966.
Out of Retirement, 1948In 1948 Fred was persuaded out of his 'retirement' to take over from Gene Kelly in Irving Berlin's 'Easter Parade' co-starring Judy Garland, after Kelly had broken an ankle. The movie was an outstanding critical and financial success and Fred got the renewed confidence to continue making more great musicals for the next decade. He once again mixed his partners, starting in 1949 with one final movie with Ginger Rogers, 'The Barkleys of Broadway', then continuing with 'Royal Wedding' in 1951 with Jane Powell, 'The Bandwagon' in 1953 and 'Silk Stockings' in 1957 with Cyd Charisse, 'Daddy Long Legs' in 1955 with Leslie Caron, and 'Funny Face' in 1957 with Audrey Hepburn. In the middle of this period of great creativity, Phyllis, Fred's wife of 21 years, died from cancer. Fred was heartbroken but continued working.
Acting Career, 1959After 'Funny Face' Fred announced his retirement from dancing in order to concentrate on an acting career. His appearance in 1959 in the drama about nuclear war, 'On The Beach' attracted rave reviews and he continued making acting appearances, mainly on television but also another seven movies after 'On The Beach', including 'Finian's Rainbow' in 1968 and 'The Towering Inferno' in 1974 for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. In the mid 1970's he appeared in the first two 'That's Entertainment!' MGM movie documentaries including a number of song-and-dance routines which he performed with Gene Kelly. These were his last dancing performances in a musical film.
Nor had he retired completely from dancing. In fact between 1958 and 1968 he produced four musical television specials, partnered by Barrie Chase. All four TV Specials won awards but the first, 'An Evening with Fred Astaire', was particularly noteworthy in that it won nine Emmy Awards, including "Best Single Performance by an Actor" and "Most Outstanding Single Program of the Year."
PersonalFred received many awards and tributes during his career, although he never won an Oscar. In 1950 Ginger Rogers presented him with an honorary Academy Award "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures". In 1960 he won the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for "Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures". In 1975 he won the Golden Globe for "Best Supporting Actor", and BAFTA and David di Donatello awards, all for 'The Towering Inferno' and in 1981 he received the American Film Institute's prestigious Life Achievement Award.
Fred Astaire was the single most influential dancer in movie history, partly because of his perfectionism and attention to detail, and partly because of his drive for innovation and his unending search for new music and new dancing ideas.
His dancing style was light, with great control and sense of rhythm and he drew from many sources including ballet, tap and Latin American. He would spend a great deal of time in planning his routines, often helped by other choreographers, notably Hermes Pan. The final results were outstanding dance sequences full of wit, grace and charm.
Fred married Phyllis Livingston Potter in 1933. She had a son, Peter, from a previous marriage, and she and Fred had two children, Fred, Jr. (born 1936) who became a charter pilot and rancher and Ava Astaire McKenzie (born 1942) who is actively involved in promoting her late father's image and heritage. Phyllis died in 1955 from lung cancer.
Fred remained an unattached widower until 1980 when he married for a second time to Robyn Smith, who was almost 45 years his junior. She was an ex-actress turned jockey, who shared his interest in race horses. They remained married until his death.
Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, in Los Angeles, from pneumonia. He was 88. He was buried at Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California, next to his first wife, Phyllis, his sister, Adele, and his mother.
Fred Astaire Academy AwardsOne Win:
Best Supporting Actor ... The Towering Inferno (1974)
No Unsuccessful Nominations:
"For his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." (1950)
Fred Astaire Filmography
Flying Down to Rio
The Gay Divorcee
Follow the Fleet
Shall We Dance
A Damsel in Distress
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Broadway Melody of 1940
You'll Never Get Rich
You Were Never Lovelier
The Sky's the Limit
Yolanda and the Thief
The Barkleys of Broadway