From the Archives: Fred Astaire, Movies’ Greatest Dancer, Dies

Janis Paige and Fred Astaire in "Silk Stockings" (1957).

Janis Paige and Fred Astaire in “Silk Stockings” (1957).

(Warner Bros.)
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 Monday at Century City Hospital.

His wife, the former Robyn Smith, told a news conference at the hospital that her 88-year-old husband had been admitted on June 12 with a case of pneumonia. The following day, she said, he was transferred to the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Astaire died at 4:25 a.m. “in my arms,” a tearful Mrs. Astaire, 42, said. “He knew I was with him and he was happy.”

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


Poor Assessment

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

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.” Over the years Mikhail Baryshnikov praised his “perfection” while choreographer George Balanchine called him “the greatest dancer in the world.”

Thus he had long ago come into his own time and few were left that remembered he gained his initial fame with Adele on the musical comedy stages of New York and London at about the time of World War I.

The seemingly casual style he exhibited with Rogers and with such subsequent film and TV partners as Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron and Barrie Chase may have begun as a form of deference to his sister—18 months older and accepted as the more gifted—when they performed in vaudeville as children.

That style became his special charm and he honed it with months of planning for every dance sequence and with such relentless rehearsal that some of his partners were, according to one magazine writer, driven to tears.


Before she died at 83 in 1981, Adele said on one of the two public television documentaries produced about her brother that he was a “perfectionist” who worked much harder at his art than she did.

“I noticed,” she added, “he did better after I left him.”

His flawless routines looked easy only because of that intense preparation. Depression-weary audiences were captivated by his apparently effortless and sophisticated manner when he and Ginger Rogers first appeared together in “Flying Down to Rio.”

Astaire was best known for the 10 films he made with Rogers. All but the last (“The Barkleys of Broadway”) were made for RKO and helped save that troubled studio by earning a reported $30 million.


Liked Race Horses

Astaire was also known as a lover of race horses, which he raised (including the famed Triplicate, winner of $250,000), for being a dapper dresser and something of a frustrated songwriter and for his affinity for aristocratic society.

In his 1959 autobiography, “Steps in Time,” Astaire claimed to be “bad-tempered,, impatient, hard to please, critical” and, “At the risk of disillusionment, I must admit that I don’t like top hats, white ties and tails.”

He wrote, “The best-dressed, debonair Astaire! What a myth! My hats are too small, my coats are too short, my walk is loose. I am full of faults. I have a sense of humor, but it won’t always work for me. I am always blowing my top over the wrong things.”


“I tell you, I am a very annoying guy,” he added.

There were those of the film press who agreed with him. Uncomfortable in interviews, he avoided them when he could. “I tried hard to please them,” he said of Hollywood reporters, “but they asked the damnedest questions.”

One of the questions he tired of hearing: “Why have you never married one of your dancing partners?”

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, Fred Jr. and Ava (pronounced “Ah-vah”).


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 Robyn Smith, 35, a jockey and longtime friend from the racing world, in a private ceremony at his home.

Adele, then living in Arizona, did not attend. Neither did Ava, who was living in Ireland. Both, it was said, opposed Astaire’s second marriage.

Astaire was born in Omaha on May 10, 1899, the son of an Austrian immigrant, Frederick Austerlitz, who went into the beer business. As a very young child, Fred saw older sister Adele taking dancing lessons with other little girls and, he related in his book:


“I should have been inspired by this, but the truth is I cannot remember that I had any reaction at all. Dancing was merely something my sister did, something that all little girls did. I let it go at that and the hell with it.”

Nevertheless, when he was 4 1/2 years old, his mother took Fred and Adele to New York—while their father remained in Omaha—and enrolled both in dancing school.

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. “There it was,” he was to recall. “The evil idea was planted way back there.”

They turned professional with their wedding cake number in Keyport, N.J., where they were paid $50, then performed in the vaudeville houses of Perth Amboy, Passaic and Shamokin around the New Jersey-Pennsylvania area.


Through their father, who had a friend with the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, they managed to get signed for 20 weeks at $150 a week and started appearing in bigger cities—Denver, Seattle, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Minneapolis.

“We could now be classed as more or less seasoned vaudevillians,” Astaire wrote later in his autobiography, “even though we were barely 9 and 7 years old.”

One theater manager reported to circuit headquarters, “The girl seems to have talent, but the boy can do nothing.”

They went through bad years. Adele outgrew Fred and they were no longer cute kids. Bookings dropped off. There were cancellations. Once, they were replaced by a dog act.


“We played every rat trap and chicken coop in the Middle West,” Astaire recalled.

But during those struggling years, they met Aurelia Coccia, who, with his wife, had a big-time dancing act. He taught the Astaire kids a tango, a waltz and other rhythms and instilled some showmanship in them.

They began to catch on and they were booked into the Palace in Chicago, where they stopped the show. During their 1915-16 tour, however, a Boston Record reviewer wrote:

“Fred and Adele Astaire, brother and sister, gave a fine exhibition of whirlwind dancing, although it could be wished that the young man give up some of the blase air which he carries constantly with him. He is too young for it and it deceives no one.”


That turned out to be their final vaudeville tour. They were offered a contract for a Shubert musical, “Over the Top,” and went to Broadway.

It was a mediocre show, but the Astaires were well-received and the New York run was followed by a fairly long road tour. After that, they did “The Passing Show of 1918.”

Astaire’s draft classification card arrived, but World War I ended before he had to report for military duty, so his career went on without interruption. He and Adele appeared in “Apple Blossoms” in 1919 and “The Love Letter,” an operetta that flopped.

“For Goodness Sake,” however, was a hit and was taken to London (under the title “Stop Flirting”) where Astaire and his sister became great favorites of the Prince of Wales and members of the British royal families.


The Astaires took other shows from Broadway to London, including “Lady Be Good!” (with music by George Gershwin) and “Funny Face.”

Sister Retires

But after “The Band Wagon” finished its New York run and went on the road in 1932, Adele decided she had had enough of show business. She retired to marry Cavendish, who died in 1971.

After Adele left, Astaire appeared on Broadway in “The Gay Divorce” (which became “The Gay Divorcee” in its later film version) with Claire Luce (not the former ambassador). The show got bad reviews and brought observations that Astaire needed his sister as a partner.


“I decided to make a stab at Hollywood and the movies,” Astaire wrote. “Having had so many years on the stage, I was looking for a change and a chance to prove something brand-new for myself professionally. Frankly, I didn’t think I had too much of a chance, but I would try.”

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

Rogers already had been in Hollywood for a couple of years and had made several films. Perhaps her most memorable role to date had been a bit in “Young Man of Manhattan,” in which she sat on a table with her legs crossed and said, “Cigarette me, big boy.”

Their teaming in “Flying Down to Rio,” the picture they stole from its stars, Del Rio and Raymond, was the beginning of a major chapter of Hollywood history.


Helen Lawrence observed in a 1976 Esquire magazine profile of Astaire that he and Rogers “danced the Carioca forehead to forehead like two battling stags” in the movie.

That was not the way it struck millions of American film-goers. They saw in the couple’s dancing a new, fresh kind of romantic expression.

“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.”

Their dancing, Croce said, was “a vehicle of serious emotion between a man and a woman. It never happened in movies again.”


Dance director Hermes Pan, who helped Astaire work out many of his film numbers, said in one of the public television documentaries on Astaire in the late 1970s: “There has never been the same electricity that happened when Fred and Ginger danced together.”

Producer Pandro Berman, who oversaw their RKO films, noted that Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, George and Ira Gershwin and the other major American songwriters of the time “all wanted to write for Fred and Ginger.”

In “The Gay Divorcee,” the pair danced “The Continental” and did what Croce called an “incomparable dance of seduction” to Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.”

In Jerome Kern’s “Roberta,” they danced to “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” In Berlin’s “Top Hat,” they danced “Cheek to Cheek.” In Berlin’s “Follow the Fleet,” their big number was “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”


Their other films included “Swing Time” in 1936, “Shall We Dance” in 1937, “Carefree” in 1938 and--what they assumed at the time would be their last together—"The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle” in 1939.

It was 10 years later that MGM brought them together one more time for “The Barkleys of Broadway.” Judy Garland was to have been Astaire’s partner, but she became ill and Rogers stepped in.

There were rumors that Astaire and Rogers fought on the set, but both denied it.

In Ginger Rogers, Croce wrote, “Astaire met a kind of genial resistance. She brought out his toughness and also his true masculine gallantry. . . . “


As early as 1935, when the Motion Picture Herald listed them just below Shirley Temple, Will Rogers and Clark Gable in the top 10 moneymakers, both Astaire and Rogers suspected the public would one day grow weary of them together.

Even before they made “Carefree” and “The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle,” Rogers went off to do “Stage Door” with Katharine Hepburn. Astaire appeared with Joan Fontaine, a non-dancer, in “A Damsel in Distress.”

The latter film was such a disappointment at the box office that Astaire thought about retiring.

“Not that I was considered through or anything of the sort,” he wrote in his autobiography, “but it so happens that when you go through a lull like that, the general feeling is you’re going to lull yourself right through the cellar floor.”


When the Castle film received good reviews, Astaire said, “Well, that was it. We had accomplished what we hoped for—a high-level climax to the series.”

Rogers went on to straight dramatic parts, winning an Academy Award for “Kitty Foyle.”

Astaire began to make films with a succession of partners and in 1950 won a special Academy Award for his contributions to films.

He teamed with Eleanor Powell in “Broadway Melody of 1940" and with Paulette Goddard in “Second Chorus.” He and Bing Crosby made “Holiday Inn” in 1941.


Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, his film dancing partners included Rita Hayworth (“You’ll Never Get Rich” and “You Were Never Lovelier”), Joan Leslie, Lucille Bremer, Judy Garland, Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton, Leslie Caron (“Daddy Long Legs”) and Cyd Charisse.

In the middle of all that, in 1945, after making “Blue Skies” with Crosby, Astaire abruptly retired. That lasted only two years, but it gave him time to get involved with setting up a successful chain of dance studios and with paying attention to his race horses.

The studio business, he observed, was not easy because “not a lot of people showed up for lessons” at the outset. Finally he decided to get back into the movies because he needed the rest.

He had not danced in nearly two years, but he got a call from MGM and replaced Gene Kelly in “Easter Parade” after Kelly broke an ankle. In that film he worked with Judy Garland.


Then Ginger Rogers replaced Garland in “The Barkleys of Broadway.”

It was when he was about to start making “Daddy Long Legs” with Leslie Caron in September, 1954, that Astaire’s wife, Phyllis, died. The studio offered to delay the film, but Astaire went ahead. “It was fortunate that I had work to do,” he wrote later.

He made “Funny Face” with Audrey Hepburn and then “Silk Stockings” with Cyd Charisse.

At that point, Astaire’s career took a new turn. He was tired of making musicals. He tried a straight comedy role on a “General Electric Theater” television show and then another.


He was signed by Stanley Kramer to play a straight role in “On the Beach,” taken from the Nevil Shute best seller about worldwide nuclear disaster.

“My professional outlook suddenly became interesting,” he said in his autobiography, " . . . everything new.”

He even made some records.

In 1958, Astaire produced and appeared in an extremely successful television special, “An Evening With Fred Astaire,” in which he danced with Barrie Chase. He repeated the feat in 1959 and did another one in 1960.


Chase was said by some critics to have been his best dancing partner since Adele. The 1959 special won nine Television Academy Emmy awards. “Astaire Time” in 1960 won another.

Astaire, whose funeral will be private at his request, wrote that the success of his first TV special in 1958 “astounded” him. He said he had never experienced such “a unanimous reaction of approval both from the audience and from the press.”

But he simply quit dancing, preferring to be a straight actor in such films as “The Towering Inferno.”

In 1976, Astaire said, “Dancing is in the past for me. I’m interested in straight acting now.”


Asked about his dancing, he said, “I don’t know how it all started and I don’t want to know. I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or as a means of expressing myself.

“I just dance.”

Times staff writer Ronald L. Soble contributed to this story.