Fred Astaire

Frederick Austerlitz (1899 – 1987): Popular singer/dancer/actor from the 1920s

Fred Astaire was born Frederick Austerlitz to Austrian immigrants on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska. He entered show business at the young age of 5. Fred began studying dance with his sister, Adele, and in a few years they entered vaudeville. Fred and Adele were highly successful in vaudeville, and by 1923, Broadway was beckoning. The team of Fred and Adele Astaire starred in “Lady Be Good!” in 1924, “Funny Face” in 1927, “The Band Wagon” in 1931 and “The Gay Divorce” in 1932. They performed these musicals in both New York and London, where they also gained great fame. By 1932, however, Adele was in love, and left the act to marry. Fred had also been hit by Cupid’s arrow, and in 1932 married Phyllis Livingston Potter. They stayed together until 1954, when Phyllis died.

Meanwhile, Fred decided to go out to Hollywood. One studio screened him, and sent this “glowing” report to the Talent Department head:

Can’t sing. Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.

RKO had a little faith in Fred, however, and signed him to a contract. RKO wasn’t ready for him yet, and so he was loaned to MGM for a cameo appearance in the 1932 Clark Gable-Joan Crawford musical, Dancing Lady. RKO then paired him with Ginger Rogers in the featured supporting roles in Flying Down to Rio, a 1933 release. The two had incredible chemistry and were paired by RKO in nine more films: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance? (1937), Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). In fact, during this time Fred made only one film without Ginger: A Damsel in Distress in 1937, which co-starred George Burns and Gracie Allen. Fred introduced one of his trademark numbers in that film, “A Foggy Day.”

By 1939, however, Fred had grown disenchanted with RKO, and decided he’d be better suited at MGM, the top studio for movie musicals. Before the move, however, Fred was loaned by RKO to Paramount, where he made Second Chorus (1940). His first assignment at MGM was Broadway Melody of 1940, co-starring Eleanor Powell. The film was a hit, but MGM didn’t seem to know quite what to do with Fred, and he was loaned out to Columbia, Paramount and RKO for four films from 1941 through 1943, including the classic Holiday Inn (1942), co-starring Bing Crosby. MGM (Arthur Freed, really) brought Fred back to the home base for Yolanda and the Thief in 1945, which also starred Lucille Bremer. The movie wasn’t a box-office success (although my “Class Act” co-author, Jim Johnson, shakes his head in wonderment whenever that fact is mentioned). Fred then made some great vignettes for Ziegfeld Follies (1946), especially “The Babbitt and the Bromide” with Gene Kelly. They wouldn’t work together again until 1976. However, after completing Blue Skies in 1946 (which reunited him with Bing Crosby), Fred announced to Hollywood and the world he was retiring.

Fred Astaire’s retirement didn’t last long. A year and a half later, in 1947, Gene Kelly called him. Gene had been unable to begin Easter Parade with Judy Garland, because he had hurt his ankle. Fred jumped at the chance to work with Garland, who was one of the nation’s top box-office draws, and began work immediately. And so, Fred Astaire returned to the screen in MGM’s biggest hit of 1948, Easter Parade. The next year, Fred was reunited with the also semi-retired Ginger Rogers, for The Barkleys of Broadway. It was also a hit. After a number of great films for MGM in the early ’50s (including the incredible The Band Wagon), Fred Astaire again announced his retirement, following Daddy Long Legs with Leslie Caron. He again returned to the screen in 1957 for Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. Fred also began his successful television career around this time. He won Emmy awards for both his 1958 An Evening with Fred Astaire and, in 1960, Astaire Time. In 1959 Fred published his autobiography, Steps in Time.

Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, Fred played many dramatic roles in films, and also made an unsuccessful musical (Finian’s Rainbow in 1968). He hosted the classic stop-motion animation television specials Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970) and The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town (1977). Fred also co-narrated the two highly successful MGM retrospectives That’s Entertainment! (1974) and That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976), which reunited him with Gene Kelly. In 1979 he received an Emmy for the television movie A Family Upside Down. His final screen appearance was as himself in a retrospective, George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey (1984). Fred Astaire died of pneumonia on June 22, 1987.