Fred Astaire Biography: Dancer and Movie Star

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Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz; May 10, 1899—June 22, 1987) changed dancing in movies forever. He kicked off his career in vaudeville, then moved to the Broadway stage, and finally achieved his greatest stardom in Hollywood. His professional career lasted more than 75 years.

Fast Facts: Fred Astaire

  • Known For: Dancer and actor who revolutionized dance in film
  • Given Name: Frederick Austerlitz
  • Born: May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska
  • Died: June 22, 1987 in Los Angeles, California
  • Spouse: Phyllis Potter (m. 1933-1954), Robyn Smith (m. 1980-1987)
  • Children: Fred Jr. and Ava
  • Selected Films: The Gay Divorcee (1934), Easter Parade (1948), Funny Face (1957)
  • Notable Quote: “I just put my feet in the air and move them around.”

Early Life

Born in Omaha, Nebraska, Fred Astaire (born Fred Austerlitz) grew up in a German immigrant family. His father worked in a brewery, and his mother dreamed of escaping Omaha through the talents of her children. She encouraged their performing instincts from an early age.


Fred’s older sister Adele was a singer and dancer. As children, the two siblings formed a brother and sister act. When their father lost his job in 1905, the family moved to New York City to kick off the entertainment career of Fred and Adele.

Out of concern that the family name would remind people of the Battle of Austerlitz, Fred and Adele’s mother changed their surname to Astaire. The brother and sister were a major success and toured on the Orpheum Circuit singing and dancing together.

Stage Career


Fred and Adele Astaire first appeared on Broadway in 1917 in the patriotic revue Over the Top. They starred in multiple shows in the 1920s, including George and Ira Gershwin’s 1924 smash Lady Be Good. After their 1927 musical Funny Face closed, the pair visited Hollywood for a screen test with Paramount Pictures. The movie company determined that they were wrong for films.


Fred and Adele Astaire.
Fox Photos / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

The brother and sister act came to an end in 1932 when Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish. Fred starred in the stage musical Gay Divorce on his own. Soon, he began considering solo offers from Hollywood.

The Stardom of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

Legend has it that Fred Astaire’s 1930s screen test with RKO Radio Pictures resulted in the assessment, “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.” Despite the mediocre assessment, studio executive David O. Selznick signed Astaire to a contract.


For his first film with RKO, 1933’s Flying Down to Rio, Astaire danced with Ginger Rogers. They received fourth and fifth billing, but the movie industry credited the pair with much of the success of the movie.

The studio quickly paired them again as the marquee stars of 1934’s The Gay Divorcee. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, and it was a box office success. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers eventually appeared in nine films together for RKO, six of which were the biggest moneymaking films in the studio’s history. Astaire was given nearly complete autonomy on the development and presentation of the dances in their movies. Katharine Hepburn reportedly said of the pair, “He gives her class, and she gives him sex appeal.”


Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Later Film Career and Television

In 1939, Fred Astaire left RKO, which brought an end to his work with Ginger Rogers. He appeared opposite Bing Crosby in the 1942 box office hit Holiday Inn. He also helped launch Rita Hayworth to stardom when she appeared as his dance partner in You’ll Never Get Rich and You Were Never Lovelier. While still a star, Astaire announced his early retirement in 1946 and opened the chain of Fred Astaire Dance Studios.


The retirement didn’t last long. Fred Astaire was back opposite Judy Garland in 1948’s smash hit Easter Parade. The next year he starred in a final film with Ginger Rogers, The Barkleys of Broadway. In the early 1950s, Astaire was let go from his acting contract with MGM, and he embarked on a series of films in the mid-1950s—Daddy Long Legs, Funny Face, and Silk Stockings—that were among his most creative, but they failed to match the commercial success of his earlier work.


Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron.
Moviepix / Getty Images

At the end of the 1950s, Fred Astaire retired from dancing in movies again. He focused instead on dramatic acting and a series of Emmy Award-winning TV specials. In 1974, he earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role in the disaster epic The Towering Inferno. In 1978, he won an Emmy Award for dramatic acting opposite Helen Hayes in the TV movie A Family Upside Down.

Personal Life

Fred Astaire kept his personal life very private. His physically active lifestyle into his 80s was well-known. He broke his left wrist at age 78 while skateboarding.

Astaire married New York socialite Phyllis Potter in 1933. They had two children, Fred, Jr. and Ava, and enjoyed 21 years together until her death in 1954 at age 46 from lung cancer. He married a second time in 1980, to Robyn Smith, at age 81. She was 45 years his junior and a former jockey. Fred Astaire died of pneumonia on June 22, 1987.


Fred Astaire and second wife Robyn Smith.
Images Press / Getty Images

Legacy

Fred Astaire revolutionized dancing in the movies. He insisted that the cameras focus on the skills of a single pair of dancers. His style was in sharp contrast to the films of Busby Berkeley, known for huge aerial shots of sometimes hundreds of dancers at a time. He also required the dances to be an integral part of the plot structure of the movie.

The American Film Institute named Fred Astaire the fifth greatest male star of classic Hollywood. Gene Kelly, one of Astaire’s few rivals for the title of greatest influence on dancing in movies, said, “The history of dance on films begins with Astaire.”

Sources

  • Astaire, Fred. Steps in Time: An Autobiography. Dey Street Books, 2008.
  • Riley, Kathleen. The Astaires: Fred & Adele. Oxford University Press, 2012.

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