Fred Astaire Biography

Frederick Austerlitz, 10 May 1899, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, d. 22 June 1987, Los Angeles, California, USA. One of the greatest - with Gene Kelly - and best-loved dancers in the history of film. The son of an Austrian immigrant, by the age of seven Astaire was dancing in vaudeville with his sister, Adele Astaire (b. Adele Marie Austerlitz, 10 September 1897, Omaha, Nebraska, USA, d. 25 January 1981, Tucson, Arizona, USA). The duo made their Broadway debut in 1917 and the following year were a huge success in The Passing Show Of 1918. During the 20s they continued to dance to great acclaim in New York and London, their shows including Lady, Be Good! (1924) and Funny Face (1927). They danced on into the 30s in The Band Wagon (1931), but their partnership came to an end in 1932 when Adele married Charles Cavendish, the younger son of the Duke of Devonshire, and retired from showbusiness.

The Astaires had dabbled with motion pictures, perhaps as early as 1915 (although their role in a Mary Pickford feature from this year is barely supported by the flickering remains), but a screen test for a film version of Funny Face had resulted in an offhand summary of Adele as ‘lively’, and the now infamous dismissal of Astaire: ‘Can’t act. Can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.’ Despite this negative view of his screen potential, Astaire, now in need of a new direction for his career, again tried his luck in Hollywood. He had a small part in Dancing Lady (1933), and was then teamed with Ginger Rogers for a brief sequence in Flying Down To Rio (1933). Their dance duet atop seven white grand pianos to the tune of the ‘Carioca’ was a sensation, and soon thereafter they were back on the screen, this time as headliners in The Gay Divorcee (1934). A string of highly successful films followed, among them Roberta and Top Hat (both 1935), Follow The Fleet and Swing Time (both 1936), Shall We Dance? (1937) and The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle (1939). Astaire then made a succession of films with different dancing partners, including Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1940), Rita Hayworth in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and Lucille Bremer inYolanda And The Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). His singing co-leads included Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and Blue Skies (1946) and Judy Garland in Ziegfeld Follies and Easter Parade (1948). He was reunited with Rogers in The Barkleys Of Broadway (1949), and danced with Vera-Ellen, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn and others throughout the rest of the 40s and on through the 50s.

By the late 50s Astaire was more interested in acting than dancing and singing and began a new stage in his film career with a straight role in On The Beach (1959). A brief return to the musical screen came with Finian’s Rainbow (1968), but apart from co-hosting celebrations of the golden age of MGM movie musicals, That’s Entertainment! and That’s Entertainment, Part II, he abandoned this side of his work. During the 50s, 60s and 70s he also appeared on US television, mostly in acting roles but occasionally, as with An Evening With Fred Astaire (1958), Another Evening With Fred Astaire (1959) and The Fred Astaire Show (1968), to sing and dance (in the three cases cited, with Barrie Chase). By the early 80s, for all practical purposes he had retired. Off-screen Astaire led a happy and usually quiet life. His first marriage lasted from 1933-54, when his wife died in her mid-forties; they had two children, Fred Jnr. and Phyllis Ava. He remarried in 1980, his second wife surviving his death on 22 June 1987.

Astaire made his recording debut in 1923, singing with Adele, and in 1926 the couple recorded a selection of tunes by George Gershwin with the composer at the piano. He recorded steadily but infrequently during the 30s and 40s, and in 1952 made his first long playing recordings for Norman Granz, The Astaire Story, on which he was accompanied by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. He continued to make records into the mid-70s, usually of songs from his films or television shows, while soundtrack albums and compilations from many of his earlier film appearances continued to be issued. As a singer, Astaire presented songs with no artifice and never did anything to dispel the impression that he was merely an amateur with few natural gifts. Yet for all this, his interpretations of popular songs were frequently just what their composers and lyricists wanted, and many such writers commended him for the engaging manner in which he delivered their material. A key factor in their approval may well have derived from his decision, perhaps forced upon him by the limitations of his vocal range, to sing simply, directly and as written. Among the composers who rated him highly were masters of the Great American Popular Songbook such as Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren.

As an actor, he was usually adequate and sometimes a little more so, but rarely immersed himself so completely in a role that he ceased to be himself and, indeed, did little to disprove the first part of his screen test summation. As a dancer, however, it is impossible to assess his contribution to stage, television and especially musical films without superlatives. Like so many great artists, the ease with which Astaire danced made it seem as though anyone could do what he did. Indeed, this quality may well have been part of his popularity. He looked so ordinary that any male members of the audience, even those with two left feet, were convinced that, given the opportunity, they could do as well. In fact, the consummate ease of his screen dancing was the end result of countless hours of hard work, usually alone or with his long-time friend, colleague, co-choreographer and occasional stand-in, Hermes Pan. (Rogers, with whom Astaire had an uneasy off-screen relationship, recalled rehearsing one number until her feet bled.) For slow numbers he floated with an elegant grace and, when the tempo quickened, the elegance remained, as did the impression that he was forever dancing just a fraction above the ground. The sweatily energetic movements of many other screen dancers was, perhaps, more cinematic, but it was something that Astaire would not have considered even for a moment. Alone, he created an entirely original form of screen dance and after his first films, all previous perceptions of dance were irrevocably altered. In the world of showbusiness, where every artist is labelled ‘great’ and words like ‘genius’ have long ago ceased to have realistic currency, Fred Astaire truly was a great artist and a dancer of genius.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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