Fred Astaire, Hollywood’s Greatest Dancer, Dies at 88 : Succumbed in My Arms, Wife Says

Times Staff Writer

Fred Astaire, whose style, elegance and graceful approach to movement made him the most acclaimed dancer in motion picture history, died early today at Century City Hospital. He was 88 and had been hospitalized briefly with pneumonia.

“I just got in bed with him and put my arms around him and he died,” said Astaire’s widow, former jockey Robyn Smith, at a hospital news conference. “He had a very complete and full life. He was a very happy man.”

Astaire’s humor and finesse coupled with his lilting, half-spoken singing had delighted two generations of film-goers while millions more had fallen under his spell through the television specials that became an apex to his lengthy and productive dancing career.


All from a hoofer supposedly once dismissed as “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.”

Whether that is pure legend or some long-forgotten studio functionary actually said that about Fred Astaire after seeing the 1928 screen test Astaire made with his sister, Adele, the unarguable fact was that she was then considered the bigger talent.

Sister Married Aristocrat

But she left the act in 1932 to marry a British aristocrat and her brother went on to make all those pictures with Ginger Rogers, to dance with a succession of other partners and to continue as an actor long after he no longer was capable of those staccato taps and eloquent slides.

None other than Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev called him “the greatest American dancer” and declared that Astaire’s “contribution was enormous.”

Depression-weary audiences were captivated by his apparently effortless and sophisticated manner when he and Rogers first appeared together in “Flying Down to Rio,” the first of their 10 films together.

In 1933, after Adele left the act to marry Lord Charles Cavendish of England, Astaire wed socialite Phyllis Potter. That gave him a stepson, Peter, by her previous marriage. The couple had two children of their own.

Astaire’s wife died in 1954, reportedly leaving him shattered. After her death, he shared his Beverly Hills home with his mother, who had taken him and Adele to New York as children to launch their careers. His mother lived with him until she died in 1975.

In 1980, at the age of 81, Astaire married Smith, 35, a longtime friend.

Astaire was born in Omaha, the son of an Austrian immigrant, Frederick Austerlitz. At a recital when he was only 5, he was dressed in top hat and tails to do a bride-and-groom dance with Adele atop a mock wedding cake.

They turned professional with their wedding cake number in Keyport, N.J., where they were paid $50.

Show-Stopper at the Palace

Later they signed into the Orpheum vaudeville circuit for 20 weeks at $150 a week and started appearing in bigger cities and met Aurelia Coccia, who taught the Astaire kids a tango, a waltz and other rhythms.

They began to catch on and were booked into the Palace in Chicago, where they stopped the show. They were offered a contract for a Shubert musical, “Over the Top,” and went to Broadway and a series of triumphs that eventually took them to London in such acclaimed musicals as “Lady Be Good!” and “Funny Face.”

After Adele left, Astaire appeared on Broadway in “The Gay Divorce.” The show got bad reviews and brought observations that he needed his sister as a partner.

“I decided to make a stab at Hollywood and the movies,” Astaire said later.

Signed by RKO, he was loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to do a number with Joan Crawford in the 1933 film, “Dancing Lady.” Then RKO teamed him with Rogers in “Flying Down to Rio.”

“No dancers ever reached a wider public,” wrote dance critic Arlene Croce in “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book” in 1972, “and the stunning fact is that Astaire and Rogers, whose love scenes were their dances, became the most popular team the movies have ever known.”