- Category : Dancer - Entertainer
- Type : GE
- Profile : 2/4 - Hermit / Opportunist
- Definition : Triple Split
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Explanation 2
Fred Astaire (May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987), born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, was an American film and Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, singer and actor. His stage and subsequent film career spanned a total of seventy-six years, during which he made thirty-one musical films. He is particularly associated with Ginger Rogers, with whom he made ten films.
Balanchine and Nureyev rated him the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and he is generally acknowledged to have been the most influential dancer in the history of film and television musicals. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
Early life and career
His father was an Austrian immigrant and a Catholic; his mother was born in the U.S. to Lutheran German parents; Astaire became an Episcopalian in 1912.
Astaire was a name taken by him and his sister Adele Astaire for their vaudeville act in 1905. Family legend attributes it to an uncle surnamed "L'Astaire". Their vaudeville career continued, with mixed fortunes and some interruptions due to the actions of the Gerry Society, until they broke into Broadway with Over The Top in 1917. Some sources state that the Astaire siblings appeared in a 1915 film entitled Fanchon, the Cricket, starring Mary Pickford, but the Astaires have consistently denied this. Fred Astaire first met George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger in Jerome H. Remick's, in 1916 and struck up a close friendship which was to have profound consequences for the subsequent careers of both artists.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and on the London stage in shows such as Lady Be Good, Funny Face and The Band Wagon, winning popular acclaim with the theater crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. As a team, they made a few recordings. They split in 1932, when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with Gay Divorce, while considering offers from Hollywood.
According to Hollywood folklore, an RKO Pictures screen test report on Astaire, now lost along with the test, is supposed to have read: "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures Pandro S. Berman claimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later. Astaire, in a 1980 interview on ABC's 20/20 with Barbara Walters, insisted that the report had actually read: "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances". In any case, the test was clearly disappointing, and David O. Selznick, who had signed Astaire to RKO and commissioned the test, described it as "wretched" in a 1933 studio memo. However, this did not affect RKO's plans for Astaire, first lending him for a few days to MGM in 1933 for his Hollywood debut, where he appeared as himself dancing with Joan Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady.
Fred and Ginger
On his return to RKO Pictures, he got fifth billing alongside Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores Del Rio vehicle Flying Down to Rio. In a review, Variety magazine attributed its massive success to Astaire's presence: "The main point of Flying Down to Rio is the screen promise of Fred Astaire ... He's assuredly a bet after this one, for he's distinctly likable on the screen, the mike is kind to his voice and as a dancer he remains in a class by himself. The latter observation will be no news to the profession, which has long admitted that Astaire starts dancing where the others stop hoofing."
Although Astaire was initially very reluctant to become part of another dance team, he was persuaded by the obvious public appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing. That partnership, and the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film musical. Astaire and Rogers made ten films together, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine musicals he created became the biggest moneymakers for RKO; all of the films brought a certain prestige and artistry that all studios coveted at the time. Their partnership elevated them both to stardom; as Katharine Hepburn reportedly said, "He gives her class and she gives him sex appeal.". Astaire easily received the benefits of a percentage of the film's profits, something extremely rare in actors' contracts at that time; and complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film. The only other entertainer to receive this treatment at the time was Greta Garbo.
Astaire is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals. First, he insisted that the (almost stationary) camera film a dance routine in a single shot, if possible, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. Astaire famously quipped: "Either the camera will dance, or I will." Astaire maintained this policy from The Gay Divorcee (1934) onwards, until overruled by Francis Ford Coppola, who directed 1968's Finian's Rainbow, his first film musical. (Coppola also fired Hermes Pan from the film.) Astaire's style of dance sequences thus contrasted with the Busby Berkeley musicals, which were known for dance sequences filled with extravagant aerial shots, quick takes, and zooms on certain areas of the body, such as the arms or legs. Second, Astaire was adamant that all song and dance routines be seamlessly integrated into the plotlines of the film. Instead of using dance as spectacle as Busby Berkeley did, Astaire used it to move the plot along. Typically, an Astaire picture would include a solo performance by Astaire - which he termed his "sock solo", a partnered comedy dance routine, and a partnered romantic dance routine.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce, Hannah Hyam and John Mueller consider Rogers to have been Astaire's greatest dance partner, while recognizing that some of his later partners displayed superior technical dance skills, a view shared by Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen. Film critic Pauline Kael adopts a more neutral stance, while Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel writes "The nostalgia surrounding Rogers-Astaire tends to bleach out other partners."
Mueller sums up Rogers' abilities as follows: "Rogers was outstanding among Astaire's partners not because she was superior to others as a dancer but because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began ... the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable." According to Astaire, "Ginger had never danced with a partner before. She faked it an awful lot. She couldn't tap and she couldn't do this and that ... but Ginger had style and talent and improved as she went along. She got so that after a while everyone else who danced with me looked wrong."
However, Astaire was still unwilling to have his career tied exclusively to any partnership, having already been linked to his sister Adele on stage. He even negotiated with RKO to strike out on his own with A Damsel in Distress in 1937, unsuccessfully as it turned out. He returned to make two more films with Rogers, Carefree (1938) and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939). When both lost money, Astaire left RKO, while Rogers remained and went on to become the studio's hottest property in the early forties. They were reunited in 1949 for their final outing, The Barkleys of Broadway.
Dancing and singing prowess
Astaire 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. Astaire's execution of a dance routine was prized for its elegance, grace, originality and precision. He drew from a variety of influences, including tap and other African-American rhythms, classical dance and the elevated style of Vernon and Irene Castle, to create a uniquely recognizable dance style which greatly influenced the American Smooth style of ballroom dance, and set standards against which subsequent film dance musicals would be judged. He choreographed all his own routines, usually with the assistance of other choreographers, primarily Hermes Pan.
His perfectionism was legendary, as was his modesty and consideration towards his fellow artists; however, his relentless insistence on rehearsals and retakes was a burden to some. Although he viewed himself as an entertainer first and foremost, his consummate artistry won him the adulation of such twentieth century dance legends as George Balanchine, the Nicholas Brothers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Gene Kelly, Rudolph Nureyev, and Bill Robinson.
Extremely modest about his singing abilities — he frequently claimed that he couldn't sing — Astaire introduced some of the most celebrated songs from the Great American Songbook, in particular, Cole Porter's: "Night and Day" in Gay Divorce (1932); Irving Berlin's "Isn't it a Lovely Day", "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" in Top Hat (1935), "Let's Face the Music and Dance" in Follow the Fleet (1936) and "Change Partners" in Carefree (1938). He first presented Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" in Swing Time (1936); the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me" in Shall We Dance (1937), "A Foggy Day" and "Nice Work if You Can Get it" in A Damsel in Distress (1937); Johnny Mercer's "One for My Baby" from The Sky's the Limit (1943) and "Something's Gotta Give" from Daddy Long Legs (1955); and Harry Warren and Arthur Freed's "This Heart of Mine" from Ziegfeld Follies (1946).
Astaire also co-introduced a number of song classics via song duets with his partners. For example, with his sister Adele, he co-introduced the Gershwins' "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise" from Stop Flirting (1923), "Fascinating Rhythm" in Lady, Be Good (1924), "Funny Face" in Funny Face (1927); and, in duets with Ginger Rogers, he presented Irving Berlin's "I'm Putting All My Eggs In One Basket" in Follow the Fleet (1936), Jerome Kern's "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance" in Swing Time (1936), along with The Gershwins' "Let's Call The Whole Thing Off" from Shall We Dance (1937). With Judy Garland, he sang Irving Berlin's "A Couple of Swells" from Easter Parade (1948); and, with Jack Buchanan, Oscar Levant, and Nanette Fabray he delivered Betty Comden and Adolph Green's "That's Entertainment" from The Band Wagon (1953).
Although he possessed a light voice, he was admired for his lyricism, diction and phrasing - the grace and elegance so prized in his dancing seemed to be reflected in his singing, a capacity for synthesis which led Burton Lane to describe him as "The world's greatest musical performer." Irving Berlin considered Astaire the equal of any male interpreter of his songs - "as good as Jolson, Crosby or Sinatra, not necessarily because of his voice, but for his conception of projecting a song". Jerome Kern considered him the supreme male interpreter of his songs and Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer also admired his unique treatment of their work. And while George Gershwin was somewhat critical of Astaire's singing abilities, he wrote many of his most memorable songs for him. In his heyday, Astaire was referenced in lyrics of songwriters Cole Porter, Larry Hart and Eric Maschwitz and continues to inspire modern songwriters.
Astaire was a songwriter of note himself, with "I'm Building Up To An Awful Letdown" - written with lyricist Johnny Mercer - reaching number 4 in the Hit Parade of 1936. He recorded his own "It's Just Like Taking Candy from a Baby" with Benny Goodman in 1941, and nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a successful popular song composer.
In 1939, Astaire left RKO to freelance and pursue new film opportunities. He teamed up with other stars, notably with Bing Crosby in Holiday Inn (1942) and later Blue Skies (1946). He was almost outdanced in Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) by one of his first post-Rogers dance partners, Eleanor Powell. Other partners during this period included Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus (1940), Rita Hayworth in You'll Never Get Rich (1941) and You Were Never Lovelier (1942), Joan Leslie in The Sky's the Limit (1943), and Lucille Bremer in Yolanda and the Thief (1945) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Ziegfeld Follies also contains a memorable teaming of Astaire with Gene Kelly.
After announcing his retirement with Blue Skies in 1946, Astaire concentrated on his horse-racing interests and went on to found the Fred Astaire Dance Studios in 1947 - which he subsequently sold in 1966. However, he soon returned to the big screen to replace the injured Gene Kelly in Easter Parade opposite Judy Garland and Ann Miller, and for a final reunion with Rogers in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). He then went on to make more musicals throughout the 1950s: Let's Dance (1950) with Betty Hutton, Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell, Three Little Words (1950) and The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera Ellen, The Band Wagon (1953) and Silk Stockings (1957) with Cyd Charisse, Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron, and Funny Face (1957) with Audrey Hepburn. His legacy at this point was thirty musical films in twenty-five years. 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. He made a series of four highly rated, Emmy-winning musical specials for television in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968, each featuring Barrie Chase, with whom Astaire enjoyed an Indian summer of dance creativity. The first 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.
Astaire's last major 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 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. But unfortunately for him, the film, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was a box-office failure.
Astaire continued to act into the 1970s, appearing on television as the father of Robert Wagner's character of Alexander Mundy in It Takes A Thief and 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, aged seventy-seven, he performed a number of song-and-dance routines with Gene Kelly -- which marked his last dance performances in a musical film. 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, as Chameleon, the maybe-father of Starbuck, in the installment "The Man With Nine Lives," a role written for him by Donald P. Bellisario after Astaire asked his agent to obtain a role for him in that series program. His final film was the 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub's novel Ghost Story. This horror film was also the last film for his three most prominent castmates, Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman.
Awards and honors
Fred Astaire has accrued the following awards and honors:
1938 - Invited to place his hand and foot prints in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood.
1950 - Ginger Rogers presented an honorary Academy Award to Astaire "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures".
1950 - Golden Globe for "Best Motion Picture Actor -Music/Comedy" for Three Little Words.
1958 - Emmy Award for "Best Single Performance by an Actor" for An Evening with Fred Astaire.
1959 - Dance Magazine award.
1960 - Nominated for Emmy Award for "Program Achievement" for Another Evening with Fred Astaire.
1960 - Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award for "Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures".
1961 - Emmy Award for "Program Achievement" in 1961 for Astaire Time.
1961 - Voted Champion of Champions - Best Television performer in annual television critics and columnists poll conducted by Television Today and Motion Picture Daily.
1965 - The George Award from the George Eastman House for "outstanding contributions to motion pictures".
1968 - Nominated for an Emmy Award for Musical Variety Program for The Fred Astaire Show.
1972 - Named Musical Comedy Star of the Century by Liberty Magazine.
1973 - Subject of a Gala by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
1975 - Golden Globe for "Best Supporting Actor", BAFTA and David di Donatello awards for The Towering Inferno.
1978 - Emmy Award for "Best Actor - Drama or Comedy Special" for A Family Upside Down.
1978 - Honored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.
1978 - First recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
1978 - National Artist Award from the American National Theatre Association for "contributing immeasurably to the American Theatre".
1981 - The Lifetime Achievement Award from the AFI.
1987 - The Capezio Dance Shoe Award (co-awarded with Rudolph Nureyev).
1989 - Posthumous award of Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
1991 - Posthumous induction into the Ballroom Dancer's Hall of Fame.
2000 - Ava Astaire McKenzie unveils a plaque in honor of her father, erected by the citizens of Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland.
Always immaculately turned out, Astaire remained something of a male fashion icon even into his later years, eschewing his trademark top hat, white tie, and tails (which he always despised) in favor of a breezy casual style of tailored sports jackets, colored shirts, cravates, and slacks — the latter usually held up by the idiosyncratic use of an old tie in place of a belt. Fred was also inspired by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson to do tap dancing as well.
Astaire married for the first time in 1933, to Phyllis Potter (née Phyllis Livingston Baker, 1908-1954), a Boston-born New York socialite and former wife of Eliphalet Nott Potter III (1906-1981). In addition to Phyllis's son, Eliphalet IV, 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, Mrs. Richard McKenzie (born 1942) who remains actively involved in promoting her late father's heritage.
Described by his friend David Niven as "a pixie — timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes," Astaire was a lifelong golf and horse-racing enthusiast, whose horse Triplicate won the 1946 Hollywood Gold Cup. He remained physically active well into his eighties and remarried in 1980, to Robyn Smith, an actress turned champion jockey almost 45 years his junior.
Fred Astaire died in 1987 from pneumonia at the age of 88 and was interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemetery in Chatsworth, California. One last request of his was to thank his fans for their years of support.
Astaire has never been portrayed on film. Astaire always refused permission for such portrayals, saying, "However much they offer me -- and offers come in all the time -- I shall not sell." His will included a clause requesting that no such portrayal ever take place; Astaire commented, "It is there because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be."
Dancing Lady (1933)
Flying Down to Rio (1933) (*)
The Gay Divorcee (1934) (*)
Roberta (1935) (*)
Top Hat (1935) (*)
Follow the Fleet (1936) (*)
Swing Time (1936) (*)
Shall We Dance (1937) (*)
A Damsel in Distress (1937)
Carefree (1938) (*)
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) (*)
Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
Second Chorus (1940)
You'll Never Get Rich (1941)
Holiday Inn (1942)
You Were Never Lovelier (1942)
The Sky's the Limit (1943)
Yolanda and the Thief (1945)
Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Blue Skies (1946)
Easter Parade (1948)
The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) (*)
(*) w/ Ginger Rogers
Three Little Words (1950)
Let's Dance (1950)
Royal Wedding (1951)
The Belle of New York (1952)
The Band Wagon (1953)
Daddy Long Legs (1955)
Funny Face (1957)
Silk Stockings (1957)
On the Beach (1959)
The Pleasure of His Company (1961)
The Notorious Landlady (1962)
Finian's Rainbow (1968)
Midas Run (1969)
Santa Claus is Comin' To Town (voice of mailman)
Just One More Time (1974) (short subject)
That's Entertainment! (1974) (narrator)
The Towering Inferno (1974)
The Lion Roars Again (1975) (short subject)
That's Entertainment, Part II (1976) (narrator)
The Amazing Dobermans (1976)
The Purple Taxi (1977)
Ghost Story (1981)
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985) (documentary)
General Electric Theater (1953-1962)
Episode 147: "Imp on a Cobweb Leash" (December 1, 1957)
Episode 185: "Man on a Bicycle" (January 11, 1959)
30th Academy Awards (March 26, 1958)
An Evening with Fred Astaire (1958) (dance special)
Another Evening with Fred Astaire (1959) (dance special)
Astaire Time (1960) (dance special)
Alcoa Premiere (1961-1963) (as host)
Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre (1963-1967)
Episode 30: "Think Pretty" (October 2, 1964)
37th Academy Awards (April 5, 1965)
Dr. Kildare (1961-1966)
Episode 153: "Fathers and Daughters" (November 22, 1965)
Episode 154: "A Gift of Love" (November 23, 1965)
Episode 155: "The Tent-Dwellers" (November 29, 1965)
Episode 156: "Going Home" (November 30, 1965)
The Hollywood Palace (1964-1970)
Episode 60: (February 10, 1965)
Episode 74: (January 22, 1966)
Episode 81: (March 12, 1966)
Episode 88: (April 30, 1966)
The Fred Astaire Show (1968) (dance special)
It Takes a Thief (1968-1970)
Episode 46: "The Great Casino Caper" (October 16, 1969)
Episode 49: "The Three Virgins of Rome" (November 6, 1969)
Episode 53: "The Second Time Around" (December 4, 1969)
Episode 64: "An Evening with Alister Mundy" (March 9, 1970)
42nd Academy Awards (April 7, 1970)
The Over-the-Hill Gang Rides Again (1970)
Santa Clause Is Comin' to Town (1970) (voice)
Fred Astaire Salutes the Fox Musicals (1974)
Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire: A Couple of Song and Dance Men (1975)
The Easter Bunny Is Comin' to Town (1977) (voice)
A Family Upside Down (1978)
Battlestar Galactica (1978-1980)
Episode 11: "The Man With Nine Lives" (January 28, 1979)
The Man in the Santa Claus Suit (1979)
for Murder on the Orient Express BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role
for The Towering Inferno Succeeded by
for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Fred Astaire: Steps in Time, 1959, multiple reprints.
Larry Billman: Fred Astaire - A Bio-bibliography, Greenwood Press 1997, ISBN 0-313-29010-5
G. Bruce Boyer: Fred Astaire Style, Assouline 2005, ISBN 2-84323-677-0
Arlene Croce: The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, Galahad Books 1974, ISBN 0-88365-099-1
Jeffrey Crouse, "Letting His Wish Provide the Occasion: Fred Astaire in Top Hat", Film International, No. 5, 2003.
Michael Freeland: Fred Astaire An Illustrated Biography, Grosset & Dunlap, 1976. ISBN 0-448-14080-2
Sarah Giles: Fred Astaire - His Friends Talk, Bloomsbury, London, 1988, ISBN 0-7475-0322-2
Benny Green: Fred Astaire, Bookthrift Co. 1980, ISBN 0896730182
Stanley Green, Burt Goldblatt: Starring Fred Astaire, Dodd 1973, ISBN 0-396-06877-4
Hannah Hyam: Fred and Ginger - The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938, Pen Press Publications, Brighton, 2007. ISBN 978-1-905621-96-5
Richard Lamparski: Manhattan Diary. BearManor Media 2006 ISBN 1-59393-054-2
John Mueller: Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films of Fred Astaire, Knopf 1985, ISBN 0-394-51654-0
Tim Satchell: Astaire, The Biography. Hutchinson, London. 1987. ISBN 0-09-173736-2
Bob Thomas: Astaire, the Man, The Dancer. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1985. ISBN 0-297-78402-1
The Astaire Family Papers, The Howard Gotleib Archival Research Center, Boston University, MA, U.S.A.