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The pleasure of Debbie Reynolds' company

The Screen Actors Guild will honor Debbie Reynolds, 82, with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Sunday

During her near-seven decade film career, Debbie Reynolds not only got to sing and dance opposite Gene Kelly in the beloved 1952 musical "Singin' in the Rain" but also partnered with Fred Astaire in the 1961 romantic comedy "The Pleasure of His Company."

"Fred Astaire was retired when he worked in 'The Pleasure of His Company,'" she recalled. "They were lucky to get him to play the father part. He only had a little dance at the wedding. He said to me, 'You don't worry about dancing. Just relax and let me lead you. Let me guide you."'

And Reynolds did.

"I just floated around the table," said Reynolds, 82. "We didn't make one mistake, at least not that I remember. We did it in one take. We just danced like little birds of a feather flocked together. I had the pleasure of his company. He was a joy."

FULL COVERAGE: SAG AWARDS 2015

After the film was completed, she presented Astaire with a most unusual gift.

"I gave him a jeweled jock strap," she said, smiling. "It is very precocious and sounds fresh and smart aleck, but I meant it as a lovely, funny gesture. He laughed for an hour."

Sunday evening, Hollywood will pay tribute to Reynolds with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award during the telecast of the 21st SAG Awards on TNT and TBS. Daughter Carrie Fisher will be giving her the honor.

"I asked her if she would be in town because she was doing 'Star Wars,'" Reynolds said, smiling. "She said yes, she will!"

Reynolds was holding court on a cold afternoon in her cozy guest house on Fisher's property in Beverly Hills. Sipping a cup of tea, Reynolds was joined on the sofa by her fluffy white Coton de Tulear dog, Dwight.

Despite having been under the weather, Reynolds was filled with stories about the Golden Age of Hollywood. She even performed part of "Moses Supposes" from "Singin' in the Rain."'

Reynolds' career began when she was signed by Warner Bros. after winning the title of Miss Burbank at 16. She was an uncredited extra in the 1948 film "June Bride" and then she was cast in the 1950 musical "The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady," playing June Haver's younger sister.

"Jack Warner said, 'What am I going to do with the kid? I am not going to do any more musicals,'" Reynolds said.

But MGM was.

Warner casting director Solly Baiano drove her in his Cadillac — "I had never been in a Cadillac," the actress recalled — to MGM, where she met with producer Jack Cummings, who cast her as singer Helen Kane in "Three Little Words" from 1950.

"Mr. Mayer saw it," Reynolds said of MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer. "He said, 'I like the kid.' He called Jack Warner and said, 'Thanks for sending me the kid. I am going to use the kid.'"

She had a more substantial role in the 1950 Jane Powell musical "Two Weeks With Love," with newcomer Carleton Carpenter. Their performance of the novelty song "Aba Daba Honeymoon" was such a hit that MGM sent the two out on tour performing between movie screenings.

"They wanted us to learn how to perform on stage," she said. "We did five shows a day. We would sing like three numbers. That was the start of my career and Carleton's career. It was fun."

Reynolds moved quickly from supporting role to female lead opposite Kelly and Donald O'Connor in "Singing' in the Rain." It was producer Arthur Freed, she said, who was willing to take a chance on her, especially when she wasn't a trained dancer.

SAG AWARDS 2015: Complete listNominee reactions | Presenters

Reynolds laments the lack of movie musicals today. She doesn't think of the current hit "Into the Woods," based on Stephen Sondheim's Broadway classic, as a musical. ("It's a tribute to his lyrics," she said. "It's brilliant. It's a tribute to his creativity, but that is not what I call a musical.")

Reynolds got to show her dramatic side in a few films, including the 1956 drama "The Catered Affair" with Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine and Rod Taylor.

The shoot was not a pleasant experience because director Richard Brooks "hated" her, Reynolds said.

"I was dating Eddie Fisher, and it upset him," she said. "He called me Little Miss Hollywood. He didn't think I could act at all, and he didn't give me any chance. Bette Davis really helped me and coached me and got me along. Everybody was nice but Richard Brooks."

She also had issues with Charles Walters, who directed her to her only Oscar nomination in the 1964 musical "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

"He didn't want me. He wanted Shirley MacLaine," Reynolds said, adding that contractual issues prevented MacLaine from taking the role.

"I have often stated that Walters came to my house, met with me and told me of his disappointment. He said, 'You are totally wrong for the part.' I said, 'No, I'm not. I am exactly right for the part."'

She credits her acting coach at MGM, Lillian Burns Sidney, for her help during the production and working with her "every night" with co-star Harve Presnell.

"You have to believe in yourself," she said. "All the training at MGM came to be a great help for me on 'Molly Brown.' I couldn't miss with all my background. I remember Gene Kelly yelling at me 'Smile!' while I'm dancing. 'Smile one more time.' You become a work horse."

SAG AWARDS 2015: Behind the scenes | Video: Hollywood sessions

Six weeks into the production, Walters changed his opinion.

"He came to me and said: 'I have to admit that I was wrong. You are playing the role really well. I'm pleased,'" Reynolds said. "He directed me very well after that."

Reynolds received acclaim two years ago for her role as Frances Liberace, the flamboyant pianist's mother, in the award-winning HBO movie "Behind the Candelabra," directed by Steven Soderbergh.

"I knew Mrs. Liberace," Reynolds said. "Lee and I were great friends. I know the whole inside story."

Soderbergh, whom she said couldn't have been "more adorable" to her, had asked to meet with Reynolds at a hotel bar in Beverly Hills to discuss the role. Reynolds decided to dress the part.

"I put on my mother's clothes and a wig — an old lady wig with a bun," she said. "I was sitting there in my costume. He looked around and saw me, but he didn't acknowledge me. Then he realized it was me sitting there!"

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Ten must-see Debbie Reynolds movies on DVD or streaming services:

"Two Weeks with Love" (1950)

"Singin' in the Rain" (1952)

"I Love Melvin" (1953)

"The Tender Trap" (1955)

"The Rat Race" (1960)

"How the West Was Won" (1962)

"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964)

"Mother" (1996)

"In & Out" (1997)

"Behind the Candelabra" (2013)

susan.king@latimes.com

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