Fred Astaire: Biography, Things You Didn't Know, Trivia About The Best In Show Business

Entertainment | May 10, 2020

Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth in a publicity portrait issued for the film, 'You Were Never Lovelier', 1942. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Fred Astaire was a dancer and actor who dazzled audiences with his moves, alongside Ginger Rogers and other partners. His showbiz story is legend: Astaire is regarded as the greatest male dancer in Hollywood history, and an artist of such skill and creativity that he changed the look and function of dance numbers in movies. Astaire's career in show business spanned his entire life, from his performances as a child entertainer in the early 20th century up until his death in 1987.

Fred And Adele Astaire Were A Famous Sibling Act

A young Fred Astaire with his sister Adele. Source: (wikipedia).

Fred Astaire, or Frederick Austerlitz, the son of an Austrian immigrant, was born on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska and his dancing career started shortly after. In 1903, his mother decided that he needed to learn to dance and took him with his sister to New York. By the age of four, he was dancing as a vaudeville act with his sister Adele. The duo debuted on Broadway with Over the Top in 1917. This was followed by For Goodness Sake in 1922. His next musical, Funny Face, would fulfill one of his childhood dreams. When he was a teenager, he met George Gershwin and they imagined that Gershwin would one day write a musical for Astaire. Funny Face was the musical Gershwin wrote for him in 1928. 

'Can't Act, Can't Sing. Balding. Can Dance A Little.'

Fred and Adele Astaire in costume for 'The Band Wagon' (1931). Source: Reddit

Astaire next performed in The Band Wagon in 1931; by the time of this musical, Astaire and Adele had attained international fame from these performances, but it also marked the end of them working as dancing partners. When Adele married Lord Cavendish in 1932, she left show business and Astaire then had a screen test, but the feedback he received was quite discouraging. Executives reportedly claimed Astaire “Can’t act, can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Despite this negative response, he was cast in Dancing Lady in 1933, a film which featured Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and The Three Stooges.

Fred Astaire Meets His Ginger (Actually, THE Ginger)

The first film Fred and Ginger danced in. Source: (Britannica.com)

That same year, he was cast with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio. Although they would eventually film 10 movies together, Astaire initially did not want to be paired with her. Their chemistry was so impressive, they stole the show and RKO Radio Pictures was compelled to cast the pair in films throughout the 1930s. Although Astaire worked with several leading ladies throughout his career, it was his partnership with Rogers that stood out. However, despite their number of appearances together, they shared only one on-screen kiss, in a dream sequence in 1938’s Carefree.

Dancing Was His Life

With Ginger Rogers in their final film together. Source: (IMDb)

On screen, Astaire appeared light and effortless, but he devoted himself to hours of rehearsal to perfect his performance. He was such a perfectionist that when he danced, he curled in his two middle fingers to disguise the size of his large hands. His dancing was impressive for other reasons as well. He bucked the trends of the time for musicals, and simplified the dance sequences, focusing on solo dancers or couples shot in full. Additionally, he transformed the role of dance in the musicals, making what was once simply spectacle into part of the plot. In 1939, the final RKO musical was shot, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle. He danced with other partners after that, including Rita Hayworth, and then temporarily went into retirement in 1946. He began appearing in musicals again two years later for MGM. He danced one final time with Ginger Rogers, in 1949, in The Barkleys of Broadway, their only movie in color and a performance that was also noteworthy for his dance with empty shoes. Dancing was so important that his legs were insured for a million dollars.

He Kept Dancing In The 1950s

In Royal Wedding. Source: (Pinterest)

The 1950s marked some of his most memorable performances: dancing with a hat rack, the ceiling dance (both in Royal Wedding, 1951), and the dance on air (in The Belle Of New York, 1952). In 1953, he performed in The Band Wagon, a reworking of the 1931 show he'd starred in, which is often cited as one of the best movie musicals.

Life After His Last Screen Dance

In Ghost Story. Source: (Cineplex.com)

He danced for the last time on screen in Battlestar Galactica in 1978. Astaire, who was 80 at the time, played the role of an alien prince. His dance was inspired by disco and he wore an ascot for the performance, which was fitting for Astaire since he often appeared on screen in a top hat, tails, and a white tie, making him a style icon. His final film came in 1981 with the horror film Ghost Story. This film was not his only non-dancing movie as he was in several others, including The Towering Inferno in 1974. He may have stopped dancing, but he remained physically active, taking up skateboarding in his 70s. He was given a lifetime membership to the National Skateboard Society of America but gave up the sport when he broke his wrist at 78.

Fred Astaire Taught Michael Jackson A Thing Or Two

He met Michael Jackson in 1979. Source: (Pinterest)

Astaire saw Michael Jackson as a worthy successor, and Jackson was a fan, paying tribute to The Band Wagon in the dance sequences of the "Smooth Criminal" video. Jackie Chan, whose fight scenes always boasted sophisticated choreography, has claimed Astaire as one of the biggest influences on his performances. Astaire also reportedly inspired Don McLean’s song “Wonderful Baby.” His career, which lasted 76 years, would include 31 musical films, television specials, and several recordings that would top the Your Hit Parade chart. The American Film Institute called him “the fifth greatest male star of classic Hollywood cinema.” He received an honorary Oscar in 1949, a Kennedy Center Honor in 1978, and in 1981, the AFI gave him a lifetime achievement award.

Source: (Patch)

A Life Away From Stage And Screen

He was an intensely private individual and refused to allow his life to be portrayed on film. He became friends with some actors, even though he infrequently appeared on the Hollywood social scene. One of his friends, David Niven, described Astaire as “a pixie—timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes.” In 1933, he married for the first time, to Phyllis Potter. They remained married until Phyllis’ death at 46 from lung cancer. Astaire was so devastated that he tried to drop out of the film he was working on at the time, Daddy Long Legs. He even offered to pay for the production costs, but was convinced to stay. He eventually remarried. Astaire died of pneumonia in 1987 at the age of 88.

Tags: Dancers | Fred Astaire | Rare Facts And Stories About History | The Golden Age Of Cinema

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!