Nationality: American. Born: Fred Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, 10 May 1899. Education: Attended Alvienne School of the Dance, New York; Ned Wayburn Studio of Stage Dancing. Family: Married 1) Phyllis Baxter Potter, 1933 (died 1954), children: two sons, one daughter; 2) the jockey Robyn Smith, 1980. Career: 1906—began dancing professionally with sister Adele: worked vaudeville circuits, according to some sources appeared in Mary Pickford's film Fanchon the Cricket , 1915, the Broadway musical Over the Top , 1917, and The Passing Show of 1918 , first major success; 1918–31—several successful stage musicals on Broadway and in London; c.1931—partnership with sister ended when she married Lord Charles Cavendish; 1933—film acting debut in Dancing Lady ; appeared in Flying Down to Rio , first of ten films with Ginger Rogers as dancing partner; 1948—in Easter Parade , replacing ailing Gene Kelly; 1959—first dramatic film role in Stanley Kramer's On the Beach ; 1961–63—host of dramatic anthology TV series Alcoa Premiere ; 1967–70—appeared occasionally in TV series It Takes a Thief . Awards: Honorary
Municipal Bandwagon (short)
Dancing Lady (Leonard) (as himself); Flying Down to Rio (Freeland) (as Fred Ayres)
The Gay Divorcee (Sandrich) (as Guy Holden); Top Hat (Sandrich) (as Jerry Travers)
Roberta (Seiter) (as Huck Haines, + choreographer)
Follow the Fleet (Sandrich) (as Bake Baker); Swing Time (Stevens) (as John "Lucky" Garnett)
Shall We Dance (Sandrich) (as Pete Peters); A Damsel in Distress (Stevens) (as Jerry Halliday)
Carefree (Sandrich) (as Tony Flagg)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (Potter) (as Vernon Castle)
Broadway Melody of 1940 (Taurog) (as Johnny Brett); Second Chorus (Potter) (as Danny O'Neill)
You'll Never Get Rich (Lanfield) (as Robert Curtis)
Holiday Inn (Sandrich) (as Ted Hanover); You Were Never Lovelier (Seiter) (as Robert Davis, + choreographer)
The Sky's the Limit (Edward H. Griffith) (as Fred Atwell/Fred Burton, + choreographer)
Yolanda and the Thief (Minnelli) (as Johnny Riggs)
Ziegfeld Follies (Minnelli) (as himself/Raffles/Tai Long); Blue Skies (Heisler) (as Jed Potter)
Easter Parade (Walters) (as Don Hewes, + co-choreographer)
The Barkleys of Broadway (Walters) (as Josh Barkley)
Three Little Words (Thorpe) (as Bert Kalmar, + co-choreographer); Let's Dance (McLeod) (as Don Elwood)
Royal Wedding ( Wedding Bells ) (Donen) (as Tom Bowen)
The Belle of New York (Walters) (as Charles Hall)
The Band Wagon (Minnelli) (as Tony Hunter)
Deep in My Heart (Donen) (as guest)
Daddy Long Legs (Negulesco) (as Jervis Pendleton)
Funny Face (Donen) (as Dick Avery, + co-choreographer); Silk Stockings (Mamoulian) (as Steve Canfield)
On the Beach (Kramer) (as Julian Osborn)
The Pleasure of His Company (Seaton) (as Pogo Poole)
The Notorious Landlady (Quine) (as Franklyn Armbruster)
Paris When It Sizzles (Quine) (as voice)
Finian's Rainbow (Francis Ford Coppola) (as Finian McLonergan)
Midas Run ( A Run on Gold ) (Kjellin) (as John Pedley)
The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (McGowan—for TV); Santa Claus Is Comin' to Town (for TV, animation) (as voice of mailman)
The Towering Inferno (Guillermin and Irwin Allen) (as Charles Claiborne); That's Entertainment! (Haley Jr.—compilation) (as host)
That's Entertainment, Part 2 (Kelly) (as host); The Amazing Dobermans (David and Byron Chudnow) (as Daniel Hughes)
Un Taxi mauve ( The Purple Taxi ) (Boisset) (as Doctor Scully); The Easter Bunny Is Comin' to Town (for TV, animation) (as voice of mailman)
A Family Upside Down (Rich—for TV); Battleship Gallactica (Colla—for TV)
The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (Corey Allen—for TV)
Ghost Story (Irvin) (as Ricky Hawthorne)
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (George Stevens Jr.—doc) (as himself)
Steps in Time , New York, 1959; rev. ed., 1981.
"The Modest Mr. Astaire Talks with Carol Saltus," in Interview (New York), June 1973.
Springer, John, All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing , New York, 1966.
Hackl, Alfons, Fred Astaire and His Work , Vienna, 1970.
Kobal, John, Gotta Sing, Gotta Dance , New York, 1970.
Thompson, Howard, Fred Astaire: A Pictorial Treasury of His Films , New York, 1970.
Green, Stanley, Ring Bells! Sing Songs! , New Rochelle, New York, 1971.
Croce, Arlene, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book , New York, 1972.
Thomas, Lawrence B., The MGM Years , New Rochelle, New York, 1972.
Green, Stanley, and Burt Goldblatt, Starring Fred Astaire , New York, 1973.
Harvey, Stephen, Fred Astaire , New York, 1975.
Freedland, Michael, Fred Astaire , London, 1976.
Green, Benny, Fred Astaire , London, 1979.
Delameter, James, Dance in the Hollywood Musical , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.
Thomas, Bob, Astaire: The Man, the Dancer , New York, 1984.
Mueller, John, Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films , New York, 1985.
Drouin, Frédérique, Fred Astaire , Paris, 1986.
Adler, Bill, Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life , New York, 1987.
Mast, Gerald, Can't Help Singin': The American Musical on Stage and Screen , Woodstock, New York, 1987.
Satchell, Tim, Astaire: The Biography , London, 1987.
Giles, Sarah, editor, Fred Astaire: His Friends Talk , New York, 1988.
Altman, Rick, The American Film Musical , London, 1989.
Kaminsky, Stuart M., Dancing in the Dark (fiction), New York, 1996.
Eustis, M., "Actor-Dancer Attacks His Part: Fred Astaire," in Theater Arts (New York), May 1937.
Pratley, Gerald, "Fred Astaire's Film Career," in Films in Review (New York), January 1957.
O'Hara, John, "There's No One Quite Like Astaire," in Show (New York), October 1962.
Current Biography 1964 , New York, 1964.
Benayoun, Robert, "Freddy, Old Boy," in Positif (Paris), April 1970.
Spiegel, Ellen, "Fred and Ginger Meet Van Nest Polglase," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison, Wisconsin), Autumn 1973.
Lydon, Susan, "My Affaire with Fred Astaire," in Rolling Stone (New York), 6 December 1973.
Yorkin, Bud, "Fred Astaire: A Touch of Class," in Close-Up: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Mueller, John, "Films: Fred Astaire's 'Dancing in the Dark,"' in Dance Magazine (New York), May 1979.
Wood, Robin, "Never, Never Change, Always Gonna Dance," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1979.
Telotte, J. P., "Dancing the Depression: Narrative Strategy in the Astaire-Rogers Films," in Journal of Popular Film (Washington, D.C.), Fall 1980.
Harvey, Stephen, "Fred Astaire," in The Movie Star , edited by Elisabeth Weis, New York, 1981.
Mueller, John, "The Filmed Dances of Fred Astaire," in Quarterly Review of Film Studies (Pleasantville, New York), Spring 1981.
Green, A., "The Magic of Fred Astaire," in American Film (New York), April 1981.
Georgakas, Dan, "The Man behind Fred and Ginger: An Interview with Hermes Pan," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 12, no. 4, 1983.
Mueller, John, "Fred Astaire and the Integrated Musical," in Cinema Journal (Champaign, Illinois), Fall 1984.
Obituary in New York Times , 23 June 1987.
Obituary in Variety (New York), 24 June 1987.
Meyerson, H., "Astaire Way to Heaven," in Film Comment (New York), September/October 1987.
Comuzio, Ermanno, "Fred Astaire: al di la del mito, la tecnica," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), October/December 1987.
Kemp, P., "Degrees of Radiance," in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March 1988.
Meisel, J., "Some Enchanted Evenings," in American Film (Hollywood), May 1988.
Davis, Francis, "Astaire's Other Talent," in Connoisseur , March 1991.
Restif, Henri, "Fred, Busby, Gene et Arthur," Avant-Scène du
Cinéma (Paris), no. 449, February 1996.
* * *
Fred Astaire is in a class by himself. Of all the movie legends of the golden era in Hollywood, he is perhaps the most universally accepted as unquestionably great. His film career encompassed more than 50 years as a top star, and his theater, recording, and television work have also been recognized as outstanding. The name "Fred Astaire" not only means "dance on film," it also represents quality, longevity, and that most elusive characteristic of an artist—a true personal style.
Astaire is one of a small group of actors who have been able to shape their own movies and make a distinct contribution to film history beyond the level of entertainment or personality. Known to be a perfectionist, his insistence on control of his own dance work expanded his influence on films. Not only did he create his own choreography in most films, he also participated in the decisionmaking process of how his dances would be photographed, scored, and edited; generally the camera frames his entire body, moves only in response to his lead, and keeps running in order to preserve the integrity of the dance. The careful matching of dance, image, and rhythm (both of sound and cutting) seen in his best numbers was a direct result of his desire for the best in every aspect of his work. Astaire pioneered the serious presentation of dance in motion pictures, both by his on-screen influence and his behind-the-scenes collaboration (most importantly with his alter ego at RKO, choreographer Hermes Pan).
Astaire's film debut, after a successful 25-year stage career dancing with his sister Adele, was in a minor role as himself in an MGM Joan Crawford-Clark Gable film, Dancing Lady . His first real success came when he was paired with Ginger Rogers for a series of elegant RKO musicals in the 1930s. Astaire and Rogers were not the leads in their first film, Flying Down to Rio , but their enormous appeal and talent were immediately apparent, and their next eight films solidified their status as one of the cinema's great teams. (The pair was reunited later at MGM for their last film, The Barkleys of Broadway .) The RKO films, with their charmingly complicated plots, excellent music, art deco decor, and remarkable dances, represent the high point of the 1930s musical genre. Although Astaire was paired thereafter with many beautiful women who were also fine dancers—Rita Hayworth, Vera-Ellen, Lucille Bremer, and Cyd Charisse—most critics agree that his most compatible partner in film was Rogers, whose looks and personality made a perfect contrast and complement to his own. Besides their exquisite dancing, they share a wonderful comic rapport; while many of his later co-stars such as Rita Hayworth and Eleanor Powell were possibly more accomplished dancers, none could deflate Astaire's comic vanity with a well-timed wisecrack like Rogers.
During the 1940s and 1950s Astaire appeared in several outstanding musical films produced by the celebrated Freed unit at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, including the highly self-reflexive The Band Wagon (the title of the last show Fred and Adele starred in on Broadway in 1931), constructed as a stirring reassertion of Astaire's value as an entertainer in a world losing its glamour. He continued his career past his dancing years, playing light comedy and dramatic roles in both television and film with equal success, earning an Oscar nomination for his supporting role in The Towering Inferno . He also "co-hosted" the first two That's Entertainment compilations, introducing the Hollywood musical to a younger generation, and providing a strong shot of nostalgia for his original fans.
Although Astaire is associated with a certain European elegance of casual dress, his personality on film is actually that of a brash American who cracks wise and cons his way forward toward his true moment of deep expression: the dance. Astaire's typical film character was saved from banality and the brink of unpleasantness by the joy, the tenderness, and the sexual tension of his dancing. The easy way in which he moved seemed to suggest to viewers that we could all be dancers, that music and dancing could and should be natural parts of self-expression. As critic Gerald Mast noted, for Astaire, singing and dancing are direct extensions of talking and walking; musical performance is a fundamental part of everyday life for Astaire, though perhaps no one ever walked, sat, or smoked on-screen quite as artfully.
Although less obviously skilled as a singer, Astaire was frequently recognized as an ideal interpreter of the songs of America's greatest popular songwriters; Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, and Jerome Kern delighted in providing material for Astaire, and consistently praised his precise phrasing as an exact interpretation of their intentions. Although most of the songs he introduced were subsequently recorded by more powerful or versatile vocalists, his subtle renditions of such classics as Kern and Fields's "A Fine Romance" or the Gershwins' "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" remain the definitive versions.
Astaire's screen work involved all kinds of dancing—tap, ballet, acrobatic, and jazz. Many of his routines were simple and elegant, and the photography was designed to match that quality. In some later films, however, he executed tricky routines that might be called experimental—dancing on the ceiling in Royal Wedding , in slow motion in Easter Parade , dancing on air in The Belle of New York , and with empty shoes in a shoe repair shop in The Barkleys of Broadway . But simple or experimental, Astaire's routines were always perfectly danced and perfectly presented on film. His command of cinema was as great as his command of dance; he has been rightly compared to Buster Keaton, another artist for whom body and cinema act in tandem. As a result, he constitutes a major revolutionary force in the development of musical films. (In the 1930s his only conceptual rival was Busby Berkeley, who brilliantly choreographed large groups of anonymous dancers, whereas Astaire's art always emphasizes the individual or the couple.)
Astaire won a special Academy Award in 1949, and the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1981. His place in film history is not just assured. It is cemented. There is no one to equal him, but his own assessment of his contribution is reflective of his personal modesty, simplicity, and elegance: "I have no desire to prove anything by it," he wrote in his autobiography, Steps in Time . "I just dance."
—Jeanine Basinger, updated by Corey K. Creekmur