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Fred Astaire

From Academic Kids

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Fred Astaire

Fred Astaire (May 10, 1899June 22, 1987), born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, was an American film and Broadway ballroom dancer and actor. He is particularly associated with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films. His unparalleled skill as a dancer leads many critics to cite him as the best dancer ever to come out of Hollywood.

"Astaire" was a name taken by him and his sister Adele for their vaudeville act when they were about 5 years old. It is said to have come from an uncle surnamed "L'Astaire". Many sources erroneously state that the Astaires appeared in a 1915 film entitled Fanchon, the Cricket starring Mary Pickford, but this is a myth (although it is believed that they were present to watch the filming).

During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway in shows such as Lady Be Good, Funny Face, The Band Wagon, and The Gay Divorcee, winning popular acclaim with the theater crowd. They split in 1932 when she married her first husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, a son of the duke of Devonshire.

Famously, a Paramount Pictures screen test report on Astaire read simply: "Can't sing. Can't act. Slightly balding. Can dance a little." In the opinion of millions of fans of his popular films, Astaire could actually dance quite a bit. He eventually ended up at RKO Studios, where he made the top musicals of that era, with Rogers as his costar.

He was a virtuoso dancer, able to convey lighthearted adventuresomeness or deep emotion when called for. His technical control and sense of rhythm were astonishing; according to one anecdote, he was able, when called back to the studio to redo a dance number he had filmed several weeks earlier for a special effects number, to reproduce the routine with pinpoint accuracy, down to the last gesture. He drew from a variety of influences, including tap and other African-American styles, classical dance and the elevated style of Vernon and Irene Castle.

His singing voice was not great, yet composers such as Cole Porter wrote a number of songs especially for him, and quite a few are among evergreen ballroom foxtrots: "Night and Day", "Cheek to Cheek", "The Way You Look Tonight", "A Fine Romance", "They Can't Take that Away from Me", and "Change Partners". Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, and the Gershwins contributed classic songs for his musicals, in large part because of his sincere, unmannered delivery of their songs.

His second film, Flying Down to Rio, paired him with Ginger Rogers for the first time. That partnership, and the choreography of Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film musical. His films with Rogers included The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935) and Carefree (1938). Their partnership elevated them both to stardom: as Katharine Hepburn reportedly said, "He gives her class and she gives him sex."

He also teamed up with other stars, notably with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946). He was also nearly outdanced in Broadway Melody of 1940 by one of his first post-Rogers dance partners, Eleanor Powell. Other partners during this period included Rita Hayworth and Joan Leslie.

After announcing his retirement in 1946, he soon returned to the screen to replace the injured Gene Kelly in Easter Parade (1948) opposite Judy Garland and for The Band Wagon (1953) with Cyd Charisse. Astaire went on to make several more musicals in the 1950s, including Funny Face (1953) with Audrey Hepburn and Silk Stockings (1958) with Charisse. His legacy at this point was thirty musicals in a twenty-five year period. Afterwards, Astaire announced that he was retiring from dancing in film to concentrate on dramatic acting, scoring rave reviews for the nuclear war drama On the Beach (1959).

Astaire did not give up dancing completely, and made a series of high-rated specials for television into the early 1960s. One of these programs, 1958's An Evening with Fred Astaire, won nine Emmy Awards, including "Best Single Performance by an Actor" and "Most Outstanding Single Program of the Year." It was also noteworthy for being the first major broadcast to be prerecorded on color videotape.

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With Petula Clark in Finian's Rainbow
Astaire's final musical film was Finian's Rainbow (1968), in which he shed his white tie and tails to play an Irish rogue who believes if he buries a crock of gold in the shadows of Fort Knox it will multiply. His last on-screen dance partner was Petula Clark, who portrayed his skeptical daughter. He admitted to being as nervous about singing with her as she confessed to being apprehensive about dancing with him.

Astaire continued to act into the 1980s, appearing in films such as The Towering Inferno (1974) for which he received his only Academy Award nomination in the category of Best Supporting Actor. He appeared in the first two That's Entertainment! documentaries in the mid-1970s, in the second performing a song-and-dance routine with Gene Kelly. In 1976, he recorded a disco-styled rendition of Carly Simon's "Attitude Dancing". In 1978, Fred Astaire co-starred with Helen Hayes in a well-received television film, A Family Upside Down, in which they play an elderly couple coping with failing health. Astaire won an Emmy Award for his performance. He made a well-publicized guest appearance on the science fiction TV series Battlestar Galactica in 1979. His final film was the 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

He received an honorary Academy Award in 1950 "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." He also won Emmys in 1961 and 1978.

He received Kennedy Center Honors in 1978, the first year they were awarded. The American Film Institute awarded him their "Lifetime Achievement Award" for 1981.

Astaire married, as his first wife, in 1933, Phyllis Potter (ne Phyllis Livingston Baker, 1908-1954), a Boston-born New York socialite and former wife of Eliphalet Nott Potter 3rd (1906-1981). In addition to Phyllis's son Eliphalet 4th, known as Peter, the Astaires had two children, Fred, Jr. (born 1936, he appeared with his father in the movie Midas Run but became a charter pilot and rancher instead of an actor), and Ava (born 1942).

Astaire married, as his second wife, in 1980, Robyn Smith, an actress turned jockey. She was nearly 50 years his junior. It is uncertain whether the second Mrs. Astaire was born Robin Miller in 1944 or Melody Palm in 1942.

Fred Astaire died in 1987 from pneumonia and was interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California.


Filmography

Forty-seven films in total

External link

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