- Fred Astaire
name = Fred Astaire
imagesize = 200px
caption = Astaire in "Royal Wedding" (1951)
birthname = Frederick Austerlitz
birthdate = birth date|1899|5|10|mf=y
Omaha, Nebraska, USA
deathdate = death date and age|1987|6|22|1899|5|10
Los Angeles, California, USA
Film actor, dancer
yearsactive = 1917-1981
spouse = Phyllis Livingston Potter
Academy Honorary Award
1950 Lifetime Achievement
emmyawards = Lead Actor - Miniseries/Movie
An Evening with Fred Astaire"
A Family Upside Down"
goldenglobeawards = Best Actor - Movie Musical/Comedy
1951 "Three Little Words"
Cecil B. DeMille Award
1961 Lifetime Achievement
Best Supporting Actor - Motion Picture
The Towering Inferno"
baftaawards = Best Supporting Actor
The Towering Inferno"
AFI Life Achievement Award
1981 Lifetime Achievement
Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz;
May 10, 1899– June 22, 1987)cite book
last = Billman
first = Larry
title = Fred Astaire - A Bio-bibliography
publisher = Greenwood Press
date = 1997
location = Connecticut
isbn=0-313-29010-5 ] was an American
Academy Award-winning filmand Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, singerand 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. George Balanchineand Rudolph Nureyevrated 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.Wikiquote:Fred Astaire] He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
1899-1917: Early life and vaudeville career
Astaire was born in
Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Johanna "Ann" (née Geilus ) and Frederic "Fritz" Austerlitz (b. September 8 1868, in Linz,cite web |first= |last= |url=http://www.germanhollywood.com/astaire.html#pop4 |title=Fred Astaire (1899-1987) aka Frederick Austerlitz |publisher=Hyde Flippo |accessdate=2008-08-24] baptised as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz)cite web |first= |last= |url=http://www.adherents.com/people/pa/Adele_Astaire.html |title=The Religious Affiliation of Adele Astaire |publisher=Adherents |date= 2005-09-20|accessdate=2008-08-24] who was a brewer. Astaire's mother was born in the United Statesto LutheranGerman immigrants from East Prussiaand Alsace, and Astaire's father was a Catholic[Satchell, p.8: "'Fritz' Austerlitz, the twenty-three year-old son of Stephen Austerlitz and his wife Lucy Heller"] of Jewish ancestry;cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=The Religious Affiliation of Fred Astaire|publisher=Adherents.com|date= 2005-07-19|url=http://www.adherents.com/people/pa/Fred_Astaire.html|format=|accessdate=2008-06-23] cite web|last=|first=|authorlink=|coauthors=|title=Burgenland - Fred Astaire's uncle, Fritz Austerlitz lived here and is memorialized on a plaque to local Jews who died in WW I|publisher=Jewish Web Index|date= 2008-04-24|url=http://jewishwebindex.com/austria.htm|format=|accessdate=2008-06-23] Astaire became an Episcopalian in 1912.cite book
last = Astaire
first = Fred
title = Steps in Time
publisher = Heinemann
date = 1959
location = London
After arriving in New York City, Astaire's father, hoping to find work in his trade, moved to
Omaha, Nebraska and landed a job with the Storz Brewing Company. Astaire's mother dreamed of escaping Omaha by virtue of her children's talents after Adele early on revealed herself to be an instinctive dancer and singer. She envisioned a "brother-and-sister act", which was fairly common to vaudevilleat the time. Although Astaire refused dance lessons at first, he easily mimicked his sister's step, and took up piano, accordion, and clarinet.
When their father became suddenly unemployed, the family moved to New York City to launch the show business career of the children. Adele and Astaire had a teasing rivalry but fortunately they quickly acknowledged their individual strengths — his being durability and hers greater overall talent. "Astaire" was a name taken by him and his sister in 1905, when they were taking instruction in dance, speaking, and singing in preparation for developing an act. Family legend attributes it to an uncle surnamed "L'Astaire". [Thomas p.17]
Finally, their first act took shape and was called "Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty." In it, Fred wore a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second. The goofy act debuted in
Keyport, New Jerseyin a "tryout theater", and the local paper wrote, "the Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville." [Bill Adler, "Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life", Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1987, p.13, ISBN 0-88184-376-8]
After a short time, as a result of their father's salesmanship, Fred and Adele landed a major contract and they played the famed
Orpheumcircuit throughout the United States, including Omaha. Soon Adele grew to at least three inches taller than Fred and the pair began to look incongruous. The family decided to take a two-year break from show business, also to avoid trouble from the Gerry Societyand the child laborlaws of the time.
Their career resumed with mixed fortunes, though with increasing skill and polish, as they began to incorporate
tap dancinginto their routines. In this Astaire was inspired by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John “Bubbles” Sublett. [cite web | author=Melissa Hauschild-Mork | title= Fred Astaire | url=http://learn.sdstate.edu/melissa_mork/tech4FredAstaire.htm | accessdate=2008-06-09 See also " Swing Time".] From vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, they learned the tango, waltz, and other ballroom dances popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle.
Some sources [ e.g. Croce, 1st edition, 1972, footnote p.14, removed at Astaire's request in 2nd edition, 1974, - see Giles (p.24). Satchell pp.41-43 claims to have detected their presence as extras "Even with the benefit of an editing machine, slow-motion, and stop-frame, the Astaires are almost lost in the mass of bodies"] state that the Astaire siblings appeared in a 1915 film entitled "Fanchon, the Cricket", starring
Mary Pickford, but the Astaires have consistently denied this. [Astaire p.42 and Billman p.4: "They observed the filming as visitors but insisted they did not appear in the film."] ["The cast may also have included Fred Astaire, then sixteen, and his sister Adele. There is no prove of this, and they do not surface in surviving reels." — cite book | last=Brownlow | first=Kevin | title=Mary Pickford Rediscovered | publisher=Harry N. Abrams, Inc. | date=1999 | location=New York, New York | isbn=0810943743] rp|103
While on the hunt for new music and dance ideas, Fred Astaire first met
George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger in Jerome H. Remick's, in 1916. [Astaire p.65: "We struck up a friendship at once. He was amused by my piano playing and often made me play for him."] Their chance meeting was to have profound consequences for the subsequent careers of both artists.
Astaire was always on the lookout for new steps he spotted on the circuit and was starting to demonstrate his ceaseless quest for novelty and perfection. Finally, they broke into Broadway with "Over The Top" (1917), a patriotic revue.
1917-1933: Stage career - Broadway and London
They followed up with several more shows and of their work in "The Passing Show of 1918",
Heywood Brounwrote "In an evening in which there was an abundance of good dancing, Fred Astaire stood out...He and his partner, Adele Astaire, made the show pause early in the evening with a beautiful loose-limbed dance." [Bill Adler, "Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life", Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1987, p.35, ISBN 0-88184-376-8]
By this time, Astaire's dancing skill was beginning to outshine his sister's, though she still set the tone of their act and her sparkle and humor drew much of the attention, due in part to Fred's careful preparation and strong supporting choreography.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and on the
Londonstage in shows such as George and Ira Gershwin's "Lady Be Good" (1924) and "Funny Face" (1927), and later in "The Band Wagon" (1931), winning popular acclaim with the theater crowd on both sides of the Atlantic. By then, Astaire's tap dancing was recognized as among the best, as Robert Benchleywrote in 1930, "I don't think that I will plunge the nation into war by stating that Fred is the greatest tap-dancer in the world." [Mueller, p.5]
They split in 1932, when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, a son of the
Duke of Devonshire. Fred Astaire went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with " Gay Divorce", while considering offers from Hollywood. The end of the partnership was traumatic for Astaire but stimulated him to expand his range. Free of the brother-sister constraints of the former pairing, and with a new partner Claire Luce, he created a romantic partnered dance to Cole Porter's "Night and Day", which had been written for "Gay Divorce". Luce stated that she had to encourage him to take a more romantic approach, "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know." [Mueller, p.6] This number was credited with the success of the stage play and, when recreated in the film version of the play " The Gay Divorcee" (1934), ushered in a new era in filmed dance.cite book
last = Mueller
first = John
title = Astaire Dancing - The Musical Films
publisher = Hamish Hamilton
date = 1986
location = London
isbn= 0-241-11749-6 ] rp|23,26,61Recently, film footage taken by
Fred Stone, of Astaire performing in "Gay Divorce" with Luce's successor Dorothy Stone in New York in 1933 was uncovered by dancer and historian Betsy Baytos, and now represents the earliest extant performance footage of Astaire. [cite web | author=Betsy Baytos | title= Footage from the Fred Stone Collection of the Broadway show Gay Divorce (1933) | url=http://www.faconference.org/bio_baytos.htm | work=Fred Astaire: The Conference | publisher=The Astaire Conference | date= | accessdate=2008-05-14]
1933-1939: Astaire and Rogers at RKO
According to Hollywood folklore, a
screen testreport on Astaire for RKO Pictures, now lost along with the test, is supposed to have read: Cquote|Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little. The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures Pandro S. Bermanclaimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later.rp|7 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". [Astaire was balding at the time he began his movie career and, thus, wore a toupee in all of his films.] In any case, the test was clearly disappointing, and David O. Selznick, who had signed Astaire to RKO and commissioned the test, stated in a memo "I am uncertain about the man, but I feel, in spite of his enormous ears and bad chin line, that his charm is so tremendous that it comes through even on this wretched test."rp|7 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 Crawfordin the successful musical film " Dancing Lady".
On his return to
RKO Pictures, he got fifth billing alongside Ginger Rogersin the 1933 Dolores Del Riovehicle " 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."rp|7
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. As he wrote his agent, "I don't mind making another picture with her but as for this "team" idea it's "out!" I've just managed to live down one partnership and I don't want to be bothered with any more." [Mueller, p.8] That partnership, and the
choreographyof Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywoodfilm 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 Hepburnreportedly said, "He gives her class and she gives him sex."cite book
last = Croce
first = Arlene
title = The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book
publisher = W.H. Allen
date = 1972
location = London
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
Astaire is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals.rp|23,26 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."rp|420 Astaire maintained this policy from "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) onwards, until overruled by
Francis Ford Coppola, who directed "Finian's Rainbow" (1968), his first film musical. [Coppola also fired Hermes Pan from the film. cf. Mueller p.403] Astaire's style of dance sequences thus contrasted with the Busby Berkeleymusicals, 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.
Arlene Croce,rp|6 Hannah Hyamcite book
last = Hyam
first = Hannah
title = Fred and Ginger - The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938
publisher = Pen Press Publications
date = 2007
location = Brighton
isbn=978-1-905621-96-5] rp|146,147 and
John Muellerrp|8,9 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 [Giles, p.33 Pan: "I do not think Eleanor Powellwas Fred's greatest dancing partner. I think Ginger Rogers was. Not that she was the greatest of dancers. Cyd Charisse was a much finer technical dancer"] by Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen. [ibid] Film critic Pauline Kaeladopts a more neutral stance, [Kael: "that's a bit much", in an otherwise laudatory review of Croce's "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book," writing in the " The New Yorker", November 25, 1972] while "Time" magazine film critic Richard Schickelwrites "The nostalgia surrounding Rogers-Astaire tends to bleach out other partners." [ [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,964929,00.html Richard Schickel's obituary of Fred Astaire in Time Magazine] ]
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." [Satchell p.127]
For her part, Rogers described Astaire's uncompromising standards extending to the whole production, "Sometimes he'll think of a new line of dialogue or a new angle for the story...they never what time of night he'll call up and start ranting enthusiastically about a fresh idea...No loafing on the job on an Astaire picture, and no cutting corners." [Mueller, p.16]
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). While both films earned respectable gross incomes, they both lost money due to increased production costs rp|410 and Astaire left RKO. 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".
1940-1947: Drifting to an early retirement
In 1939, Astaire left RKO to
freelanceand pursue new film opportunities, with mixed though generally successful outcomes. Throughout this period, Astaire continued to value the input of choreographic collaborators and, unlike the 1930s when he worked almost exclusively with Hermes Pan, he tapped the talents of other choreographers in an effort to continually innovate. His first post-Ginger dance partner was the redoubtable Eleanor Powell- considered the finest female tap-dancer of her generation - in " Broadway Melody of 1940" where they performed a celebrated extended dance routine to Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine. He played alongside Bing Crosbyin "Holiday Inn" (1942) and later "Blue Skies" (1946) but in spite of the enormous financial success of both, was reportedly dissatisfied with roles where he lost the girl to Crosby. The former film is particularly remembered for his virtuoso solo dance to "Let's Say it with Firecrackers" while the latter film featured an innovative song and dance routine to a song indelibly associated with him: " Puttin on the Ritz". Other partners during this period included Paulette Goddardin " Second Chorus" (1940), in which he dance-conducted the Artie Shaworchestra.
He made two pictures with
Rita Hayworth: the first " You'll Never Get Rich" (1941) catapulted Hayworth to stardom and provided Astaire with his first opportunity to integrate Latin-American dance idioms into his style, taking advantage of Hayworth's professional Latin dance pedigree. His second film with Hayworth, " You Were Never Lovelier" (1942) was equally successful, and featured a duet to Kern's " I'm Old Fashioned" which became the centerpiece of Jerome Robbins' 1983 New York City Ballettribute to Astaire. He next appeared opposite the seventeen-year-old Joan Lesliein the wartime drama " The Sky's the Limit" (1943) where he introduced Arlen and Mercer's "One for My Baby" while dancing on a bar counter in a dark and troubled routine. This film which was choreographed by Astaire alone and achieved modest box office success, represented an important departure for Astaire from his usual charming happy-go-lucky screen persona and confused contemporary critics.
His next partner,
Lucille Bremer, featured in two lavish vehicles, both directed by Vincente Minnelli: the fantasy " Yolanda and the Thief" which featured an avant-garde surrealistic ballet, and the musical revue "Ziegfeld Follies" (1946) which featured a memorable teaming of Astaire with Gene Kellyto "The Babbit and the Bromide", a Gershwin song Astaire had introduced with his sister Adele back in 1927. While "Follies" was a hit, "Yolanda" bombed at the box office and Astaire, ever insecure and believing his career was beginning to falter surprised his audiences by announcing his retirement during the production of "Blue Skies" (1946), nominating "Puttin on the Ritz" as his farewell dance.
After announcing his retirement in 1946, Astaire concentrated on his horse-racing interests and went on to found the
Fred Astaire Dance Studiosin 1947 — which he subsequently sold in 1966.
1948-1957: Productive years with MGM and second retirement
However, he soon returned to the big screen to replace the injured Gene Kelly in "Easter Parade" opposite
Judy Garlandand 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.
During 1952 Astaire recorded "
The Astaire Story", a four volume album with a quintet led by Oscar Peterson. The album provided a musical overview of Astaire's career, and were produced by Norman Granz. "The Astaire Story" later won the Grammy Hall of Fame Awardin 1999, a special Grammy award to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance." [ [http://www.grammy.com/Recording_Academy/Awards/Hall_Of_Fame/ Grammy Hall of Fame Database] ]
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).
1958-1981: Branching out into televised dance and straight acting
Astaire did not retire from 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, and has recently been restored. The show was to earn a further technical Emmy in 1988 for Ed Reitan, Don Kent, and Dan Einstein, who restored the original videotape, transferring its contents to a modern format, and filling in gaps where the tape had deteriorated with kinescope footage.
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 Knoxit 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 voiced the mailman narrator in 1970's classic animated film, "Santa Claus is Comin' to Town". He appeared in the first two " That's Entertainment!" documentaries in the mid-1970s. In the second, aged seventy-six, he performed a number of song-and-dance routines with Gene Kelly-- which marked his last dance performances in a musical film. In the Summer of 1975, he made three albums in London, "Attitude Dancing", " They Can't Take These Away From Me", and "A Couple of Song and Dance Men", the last an album of duets with Bing Crosby. In 1976, he played a supporting role as a dogowner in the cult movie " The Amazing Dobermans", co-starring Barbara Edenand James Franciscus. In 1978, Fred Astaire co-starred with Helen Hayesin a well-received television film, "A Family Upside Down," in which they play an elderly couple coping with failing health. Astaire won an Emmy Awardfor his performance. He made a well-publicized guest appearance on the science fictionTV 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. Astaire asked his agent to obtain a role for him in that series program because of his grand children's interest in the series. His final film role was the 1981 adaptation of Peter Straub's novel "Ghost Story." This horror film was also the last for two of his most prominent castmates, Melvyn Douglasand Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Working methods and influence on filmed dance
Astaire was a
virtuosodancer, able to convey light-hearted venturesomeness or deep emotion when called for. His technical control and sense of rhythm were astonishing. Long after the photography for the solo dance number "I Want To Be A Dancin' Man" was completed for the 1952 feature "The Belle Of New York", it was decided that Astaire's humble costume and the threadbare stage set were inadequate and the entire sequence was re-shot. The 1994 documentary "That's Entertainment! Part III" shows the two performances side-by-side in split screen. Frame for frame, the two performances are absolutely identical, down to the subtlest 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-Americanrhythms, classical dance and the elevated style of Vernon and Irene Castle, to create a uniquely recognizable dance style which greatly influenced the American Smoothstyle of ballroom dance, and set standards against which subsequent film dance musicals would be judged. He termed his eclectic approach his "outlaw style", an unpredictable and instinctive blending of personal artistry. His dances are economical yet endlessly nuanced, as Jerome Robbinsstated, "Astaire's dancing looks so simple, so disarming, so easy, yet the understructure, the way he sets the steps on, over or against the music, is so surprising and inventive." [Mueller, p.18] Astaire further observes:
Working out the steps is a very complicated process--something like writing music. You have to think of some step that flows into the next one, and the whole dance must have an integrated pattern. If the dance is right, there shouldn't be a single superfluous movement. It should build to a climax and stop!" [Mueller, p.15]
Astaire choreographed all his own routines, usually with the assistance of other choreographers, primarily
Hermes Pan. He would often start with a blank slate:
"For maybe a couple of days we wouldn't get anywhere--just stand in front of the mirror and fool around...Then suddenly I'd get an idea...So then we'd get started...You might get practically the whole idea of the routine done that day, but then you'd work on it, edit it, scramble it, and so forth. It might take sometimes as long as two, three weeks to get something going." [Mueller, p.15]
Frequently, a dance sequence was built around two or three principal ideas, sometimes inspired by his own steps or by the music itself, suggesting a particular mood or action. [Mueller, p.20] Many of his dances were built around a "gimmick", such as dancing on the walls in "Royal Wedding", that he had thought up earlier and saved for the right situation. Being a gifted lyricist, even the words of a song might suggest a dance step. [Mueller, p.20] He would spend weeks creating all the dance sequences in a secluded rehearsal space before filming would begin, incorporating his and his partner's ideas as they went along.
His perfectionism was legendary; however, his relentless insistence on rehearsals and retakes was a burden to some. When time approached for the shooting of a number, Astaire would rehearse for another two weeks, and record the singing and music. With all the preparation completed, the actual shooting would go quickly, conserving costs. Astaire agonized during the entire process, frequently asking colleagues for acceptance for his work, as
Vincente Minnellistated, "He lacks confidence to the most enormous degree of all the people in the world. He will not even go to see his rushes...He always thinks he is no good." [Mueller, p.16] As Astaire himself observed, "I've never yet got anything 100% right. Still it's never as bad as I think it is." [Mueller, p.16]
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, Michael Jacksonand Bill Robinson.
Ballanchine summed Astaire's influence and talent, "He is like Bach, who in his time had a great concentration of ability, essence, knowledge, a spread of music. Astaire has that same concentration of genius." [Mueller, p.3]
Influence on popular song
Extremely modest about his singing abilities — he frequently claimed that he couldn't sing [e.g. Satchell, p.144] — 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 This 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 Warrenand 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 Fabrayhe delivered Betty Comdenand 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 [ Thomas p.118 ] - the grace and elegance so prized in his dancing seemed to be reflected in his singing, a capacity for synthesis which led
Burton Laneto describe him as "The world's greatest musical performer."rp|21 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 songsrp|21 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.rp|123,128 In his heyday, Astaire was referenced in lyrics of songwriters Cole Porter, Lorenz Hartand Eric Maschwitzand continues to inspire modern songwriters. [e.g. the songs "I Am Fred Astaire" by Taking Back Sunday, "No Myth" by Michael Penn, "Take you on a cruise" by Interpol, "Fred Astaire" by Lucky Boys Confusion, "Long Tall Glasses" by Leo Sayer, " Just Like Fred Astaire" by James, "After Hours" by "The Bluetones", "Fred Astaire" by Pips, Chips and Videoclips, "Decadence Dance" by Extreme, and appeared on the cover of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Bandalbum.]
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. [Billman, p.287.] He recorded his own "It's Just Like Taking Candy from a Baby" with Benny Goodmanin 1941, and nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a successful popular song composer. [Thomas, p.135: "I'd love to have been able to do more with my music, but I never had the time. I was always working on dance numbers. Year after year I kept doing that. Somehow or other I always blame myself, because I say, 'Well, I could have found the time; why the hell didn't I do it?'"]
Awards, honors and tributes
* 1938 - Invited to place his hand and foot prints in cement at
Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Hollywood. [Billman, pp.287-290]
* 1950 -
Ginger Rogerspresented an honorary Academy Awardto Astaire "for his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures".
* 1950 -
Golden Globefor "Best Motion Picture Actor -Music/Comedy" for "Three Little Words".
* 1958 -
Emmy Awardfor "Best Single Performance by an Actor" for " An Evening with Fred Astaire".
* 1959 -
* 1960 - Nominated for
Emmy Awardfor "Program Achievement" for " Another Evening with Fred Astaire".
* 1960 -
Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Awardfor "Lifetime Achievement in Motion Pictures".
* 1961 -
Emmy Awardfor "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 Housefor "outstanding contributions to motion pictures".
* 1968 - Nominated for an
Emmy Awardfor "Musical Variety Program" for " The Fred Astaire Show".
* 1972 - Named Musical Comedy Star of the Century by
* 1973 - Subject of a Gala by the Film Society of
* 1975 -
Golden Globefor "Best Supporting Actor", BAFTAand David di Donatelloawards for " The Towering Inferno".
* 1978 -
Emmy Awardfor "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 Awardfrom the AFI.
* 1982 - The Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation announces the Astaire Awards "to honor Fred Astaire and his sister Adele and to reward the achievement of an outstanding dancer or dancers." The awards have since been renamed The Fred and Adele Astaire Awards.
* 1987 - The Capezio Dance Shoe Award (co-awarded with
* 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.
* 2008 - Conference to honor the life and work of Fred Astaire at
Oriel College, University of Oxford, June 21-24. [cite paper | author=Kathleen Riley | title=Fred Astaire Conference Flyer | version= | format=.PDF | publisher=The Astaire Conference | url=http://www.benandbrad.com/astaireflyer.pdf | date=2008 | accessdate=2008-05-14]
Built in 1905, the
Gottlieb Storz Mansionin Astaire's hometown of Omaha includes the "Adele and Fred Astaire Ballroom" on the top floor, which is the only memorial to their Omaha roots. [Wishart, D.J. (2004) "Encyclopedia of the Great Plains" University of Nebraska Pres. p 259.]
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,
cravatsand slacks — the latter usually held up by the idiosyncratic use of an old tie in place of a belt.
Astaire married for the first time in 1933, to the 25-year-old Phyllis Potter (née Phyllis Livingston Baker, 1908-1954), a Boston-born New York socialite and former wife of Eliphalet Nott Potter III (1906-1981), after pursuing her ardently for roughly two years. Potter's death from lung cancer, at the age of 46, ended 21 years of a blissful marriage and left Astaire devastated. [Niven, David: "Bring on the Empty Horses", G. Putnam 1975, p.248, 255: "The combination of Fred and Phyllis was a joy to behold...Theirs was the prototype of a gloriously happy marriage."] Consumed with grief, Astaire wanted to drop out of "Daddy Long Legs", his current project. He even made an unprecedented offer to the studio to pay all production costs to date out of his own pocket. But he ultimately decided to continue with the picture as a distraction from his grief (and also because Potter had wanted him to make it). [Billman, p. 22: "Astaire's intense professionalism — and the memory that Phyllis had wanted him to make the film — made him report back for work. The first few weeks were difficult, with most of the time being spent on Leslie's ballets and requiring as little as possible from the grieving man. Caron remembered, "Fred used to sit down during a rehearsal and put his face in his towel and just cry."] Thereafter, he remained as busy as possible.
In addition to Potter's son, Eliphalet IV, known as Peter, the Astaires had two children. Fred, Jr. (born 1936) appeared with his father in the movie "Midas Run", but became a charter pilot and rancher instead of an actor. Ava Astaire McKenzie (born 1942) remains actively involved in promoting her late father's heritage. Ava continues to lecture on topics about her father today. She is married to Richard McKenzie and divides her time between London and Ireland. [ [http://www.danceonfilm.org/about/Ava_Astaire_McKenzie.html AVA ASTAIRE MCKENZIE] ]
David Nivendescribed him as "a pixie — timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes." Astaire was a lifelong golf and horse-racing enthusiast; his horse "Triplicate" won the 1946 Hollywood Gold Cup. He remained physically active well into his eighties. At age 78, he broke his left wrist while riding his grandson's skateboard. [(Thomas p. 301) Astaire was awarded a life membership in the National Skateboard Society (Satchell p. 221). He remarked "Gene Kelly warned me not to be a damned fool, but I'd seen the things those kids got up to on television doing all sorts of tricks. What a routine I could have worked up for a film sequence if they had existed a few years ago. Anyway I was practicing in my driveway." (Satchell p.221)] He remarried in 1980, to Robyn Smith, an actress turned champion jockeyalmost 45 years his junior. Smith was a jockey for Alfred G. Vanderbilt II.
Astaire died from
pneumoniaon June 22, 1987, at the age of 88. He was interred in the Oakwood Memorial Park Cemeteryin Chatsworth, California. [Rogers, who died in 1995, is also interred in this cemetery.] One last request of his was to thank his fans for their years of support.
Astaire has never been portrayed on film. [In 1986,
Federico Fellinireleased " Ginger and Fred," which, although inspired by Astaire and Rogers, portrays an Italian ballroom dancing couple. In 1996, his widow allowed footage of him to be used in a commercial for Dirt Devilvacuum cleaners in which he dances with a vacuum. His daughter stated that she was "saddened that after his wonderful career he was sold to the devil." cf " Royal Wedding"] He always refused permission for such portrayals, saying, "However much they offer me - and offers come in all the time - I shall not sell." [Satchell p.253] Astaire's will included a clause requesting that no such portrayal ever take place; he commented, "It is there because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be." [Satchell p.254. Billman (p.26) believes Astaire couldn't countenance the portrayal of his first wife, who suffered from a speech impediment.]
tage, film and television work
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) (*)
* "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)
* "Finian's Rainbow" (1968)
That's Entertainment, Part II" (1976) (narrator and performer)
(*) performances with Ginger Rogers
*Astaire, Fred. "Steps in Time", 1959, OCLC|422937
*Billman, Larry. "Fred Astaire — A Bio-bibliography", Greenwood Press 1997, ISBN 0-313-29010-5
*Boyer, G. Bruce. "Fred Astaire Style", Assouline 2005, ISBN 2-84323-677-0
*Croce, Arlene. "The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book", Galahad Books 1974, ISBN 0-88365-099-1
*Crouse, Jeffrey. "Letting His Wish Provide the Occasion: Fred Astaire in "Top Hat", Film International, No. 5, 2003.
*Freeland, Michael. "Fred Astaire An Illustrated Biography", Grosset & Dunlap, 1976. ISBN 0-448-14080-2
*Giles, Sarah. "Fred Astaire — His Friends Talk", Bloomsbury, London, 1988, ISBN 0-7475-0322-2
*Green, Benny. "Fred Astaire", Bookthrift Co. 1980, ISBN 0896730182
*Green, Stanley, & Burt Goldblatt. "Starring Fred Astaire", Dodd 1973, ISBN 0-396-06877-4
*Hyam, Hannah. "Fred and Ginger — The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934-1938", Pen Press Publications, Brighton, 2007. ISBN 978-1-905621-96-5
*Lamparski, Richard. "Manhattan Diary". BearManor Media 2006 ISBN 1-59393-054-2
*Mueller, John. "Astaire Dancing — The Musical Films of Fred Astaire", Knopf 1985, ISBN 0-394-51654-0
*Satchell, Tim. "Astaire, The Biography." Hutchinson, London. 1987. ISBN 0-09-173736-2
*Thomas, Bob. "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.
* [http://themave.com/Astaire/ Fred Astaire tribute site]
* [http://www.alsodances.net/biography/ Fred Astaire biography at AlsoDances.Net]
* [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,964929,00.html Time.com: The Great American Flyer Fred Astaire:1899-1987]
* [http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,265339-1,00.html Time Magazine archive: Astaire essay by Richard Corliss]
* [http://www.adherents.com/people/pa/Fred_Astaire.html Astaire's religious views incl. many extracts from his biographers]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/media/video/39522000/rm/_39522952_astaire08_astaire_vi.ram Ava Astaire discusses her father's legacy. (BBC Television - Realplayer required)]
* [http://www.evolver.at/stories/Fred_Astaire_In_Memoriam/ "He's in Heaven..." - In Memoriam Fred Astaire]
* [http://www.kaneprod.com/astaire/astaire.htm Radio Interview - Fred Astaire - 1968]
* [http://members.tripod.com/~npaulette/fred.htm Links to photos of Astaire]
* [http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article4343804.ece "Fred Astaire and the art of fun"] : an essay on the Oxford Fred Astaire conference from [http://www.the-tls.co.uk TLS] , July 16 2008.
ALTERNATIVE NAMES=Austerlitz, Frederick (birth name)
SHORT DESCRIPTION= Dancer, actor
DATE OF BIRTH=
May 10, 1899
PLACE OF BIRTH=
Omaha, Nebraska, U.S.
DATE OF DEATH=
June 22, 1987
PLACE OF DEATH=
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
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