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100 years of Fred Astaire

Astaire, a day before his 85th birthday

May 14, 1999
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EDT (1610 GMT)

From Sherri Sylvester
CNN Entertainment News Correspondent

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Fred Astaire was born a century ago this week.

And although he died in 1987, his legacy of elegance, grace and ingenuity on the dance floor has not faded. Looking at almost any of some 40 films, it's hard not to repeat the cliche, "He made it look so easy." But Astaire worked hard to become a sensation, starting at an early age.

He was born Frederick Austerlitz, the son of an Austrian-immigrant beer salesman, on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. His mother enrolled him in dancing school in New York at the age of 4, with his sister Adele who was 6.

No more than a year after they began dance classes, they made their professional debut in Keyport, New Jersey, as The Astaires. Their mother suggested the name change because she felt Austerlitz sounded like a battle. Astaire was Fred's paternal grandmother's maiden name. Their kiddie-dance act earned high praise, and by the time Fred was 7, the brother-sister duo was touring on the vaudeville circuit.

Within some five years, Fred's lankiness was making it hard for the brother and sister to dance together -- he needed time to catch up to the adolescent Adele. So they took a break from the stage and studied with showman Aurelia Coccia. When they returned to the limelight, they were better than ever.

They left vaudeville and worked for some 15 years on Broadway and in London's West End. While hobnobbing with royalty in England, Adele met Lord Charles Cavendish, Devonshire. They married in 1932, and she left show business.

The Astaires suddenly was a solo act -- one Astaire, Fred.

Fred and sister Adele Astaire rehearsing George Gershwin's "Fascinating Rhythm" in the 1924 Broadway musical "Lady Be Good"

Hollywood bound

He fell in love with New York socialite Phyllis Potter, married -- and began testing for film work. After seeing one test, a Universal producer issued an ultimately entertaining verdict: "Can't act, can't sing, slightly balding, can dance a little." Despite that less-than-flattering review, Astaire landed a small part opposite Joan Crawford in the 1933 film "Dancing Lady."

In his second film, "Flying Down to Rio" (1933), he was paired with Ginger Rogers. Their on-screen chemistry was so good that they were paired on a total 10 pictures, including "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Top Hat" (1935), "Swing Time" (1936) and "Shall We Dance?" (1937).

The dance of the trophies

Astaire raked in the awards. He was voted Money-Making Star in the Motion Picture Herald Fame Polls for three consecutive years, from 1935 to 1937. By 1949, he'd won an honorary Academy Award for "raising the standards of all musicals." In just two years, 1958 and 1959, he won nine Emmys. And that, after trying to go into retirement more than a decade earlier, in 1946.

An injury scuttled that bow-out -- Gene Kelly's injury. In 1948, dancing colleague Kelly was injured while rehearsing "Easter Parade" with Judy Garland. Astaire stood in for Kelly in what turned out to be one of his most enduring films. Its big numbers include "Drum Crazy," "Better Luck Next Time" and the speed-demon work of Ann Miller in "Shakin' the Blues Away."

Astaire went through one of the hardest periods of his life in the mid-'50s. His wife Phyllis died of cancer, as he filmed "Daddy Long Legs" (1955). They'd been married for 21 years and had two children, Fred Jr. and Ava. Still his career flourished, as he appeared in such films as "Funny Face" and "Silk Stockings," both in 1957. In the 1959 "On the Beach," based on Nevil Shute's bleak novel about nuclear holocaust in Australia, Astaire proved his mettle in dramatic work. He'd later be nominated for a best-supporting-actor Oscar in "The Towering Inferno" (1974).
  • "The Barkleys of Broadway" (1949)
  • "Carefree" (1938)
  • "Flying Down to Rio" (1933)
  • "Follow the Fleet" (1936)
  • "The Gay Divorcee" (1934)
  • "Roberta" (1935)
  • "Shall We Dance?" (1937)
  • "The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle" (1939)
  • "Swing Time" (1936)
  • "Top Hat" (1935)
  • A new love

    Astaire met Robyn Smith at the racetrack on New Year's Day 1973. She was one of the most successful female jockeys in the world. They married in 1980. Smith was 35. Astaire was 81.

    "When we married I never thought of age because he was so young acting," Robyn Astaire says. "And to watch his old movies now, as some many people do -- he's just ageless."

    As if to prove that point, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences honored Astaire with a Lifetime Achievement award in 1981.

    The Astaires spent their time together in the comforts of retirement. But after less than a decade of marriage to Robyn, Fred died of complications from pneumonia on June 22, 1987, at age 88.

    Protecting the legacy

    Robyn Astaire today fights to protect her husband's image. She initiated United States Senate Bill 209, which would further protect heirs against the unlicensed marketing of dead celebrities.

    "They're putting him on coffee mugs and pencils, and I put a stop to all of that .... That's the reason I initiated this bill ... so other people could have some control over the use of their image."

    With all of Fred Astaire's contributions to the movie musicals, Robyn Astaire says the just thing to do is to leave his legendary mark untouched.

    If you knew Emmys like we knew Emmys
    September 4, 1998

    The Kennedy Center Honors: Fred Astaire
    Fred Astaire: Memories of a time gone by
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