Actor, dancer, choreographer, singer. Born Frederick Austerlitz II, on May 10, 1899, in Omaha, Nebraska. Astaire was the son of Frederick E. Austerlitz and Ann (Geilus) Astaire, a schoolteacher. A Viennese emigrant, Astaire's father had traveled to the United States in 1895, settling in Omaha, where he eventually worked for a brewery; Astaire's mother was a native Nebraskan. Astaire's sister, Adele, was born in September 1897, twenty months before Fred. The family lived in a wooden frame house near downtown Omaha.
Early on it was clear to Astaire's parents that Adele had an unmistakable gift for performing. When their father lost his job after Nebraska banned alcoholic beverages, Fred and Adele traveled to New York City with their mother and were enrolled in the Claude Alvienne Dancing School. Adele was considered the more talented of the two. Around this time, the decision was made to change the family name. (Astaire later commented that the name may have been derived from an Alsace-Lorraine uncle named L'Astaire.)
To showcase the young Astaires, Claude Alvienne devised a wedding cake routine that eventually won them a coveted spot on the Orpheum vaudeville circuit. Following a two-year hiatus, during which the Astaires attended a school in Highwood Park, New Jersey, Fred and Adele, with the help of dance instructor Ned Wayburn, created a new, more mature act, which was disappointingly received. All the while it was assumed that Adele was the principal attraction, surpassing her brother Fred in expertise and professionalism.
Under the tutelage of a new teacher named Aurelia Coccia, the Astaires, although still in their teens, finally developed into seasoned professionals who toured the top vaudeville circuit. In 1917 they were offered a spot in a Shubert revue called Over the Top, and after appearing in The Passing Show of 1918, they became a popular attraction in such musicals as Apple Blossoms (1918), For Goodness Sake (1922), and The Bunch and Judy (1922). By 1924 they were established theater stars, performing in Lady, Be Good! which featured a score by George and Ira Gershwin. Another Gershwin score enhanced their musical hit, Funny Face (1927). At this point Adele's star continued to shine a little more brightly than her brother's; her saucy charm enchanted audiences, while Fred remained the callow young sophisticate.
During the short run of their musical Smiles, Astaire managed to meet and occasionally date a pert young redhead named Ginger Rogers, who was appearing in Girl Crazy. Meanwhile, Adele fell in love with a young Englishman named Lord Charles Cavendish and decided to marry him and retire from the stage. The Astaires' last show together, The Band Wagon (1931), featured a tuneful Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz score. That year also marked Fred's meeting with a Long Island socialite named Phyllis Baker Potter, whom he married in July 1933. They had two children, Fred, Jr., and Ava, and Potter brought to the marriage a son, Peter, by a previous union. The marriage lasted until her death in 1954.
After starring without Adele in Cole Porter's Gay Divorcée (1932), Astaire went to Hollywood, where he signed a contract with RKO Studios. He was assigned a role in the musical Flying Down to Rio (1933), but first he was loaned to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where he made his film debut in Dancing Lady (1933), performing in two musical numbers with the studio's glamorous but musically inexperienced star Joan Crawford. When it was finally filmed, Flying Down to Rio turned out to be an infinitely more auspicious showcase for Astaire. Although he was relegated to a secondary lead (the stars were Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio), Astaire had the singular good fortune to be partnered with Ginger Rogers, the young actress he had known in New York. When they came together in a Latin-oriented number called "The Carioca," something miraculous occurred: her down-to-earth brashness blended with his airy man-about-town sophistication, and when they danced, their pleasure in each other was palpable.
When audiences responded enthusiastically to their teaming, the studio lost no time in putting them together again in a film version of Astaire's Broadway musical, now renamed The Gay Divorcée (1934). Seldom has film history arrived in so lighthearted a package. The film's story was flimsy, but the Astaire-Rogers dances to the Cole Porter music were not only sublime, they were also revolutionary. Ever the perfectionist, Astaire insisted on showing the full figures of the dancers and gave the musical numbers an emotional center, even an erotic charge. The couple never kissed (at least not until years later), but they were clearly making love on the dance floor, especially in their exquisite duet to "Night and Day." (It was also clear that Astaire's light, unassuming voice was the perfect instrument to express his ardor.)
After returning briefly to secondary leads in Roberta (1935), Astaire and Rogers evolved into Astaire-and-Rogers, an entity whose charm, grace, and style would never be surpassed on screen. Musical after musical, embellished with songs by such master composers as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, and Jerome Kern, displayed their matchless appeal. Top Hat (1935), arguably their best film, found them dancing incomparably to Berlin songs in art deco settings and also gave Astaire his quintessential solo dance to "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails." Follow the Fleet (1936) had sailor Astaire wooing dance hall hostess Rogers to Berlin melodies, while Swing Time (1936) delighted audiences with musical numbers (score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields) that ranged from Astaire's astonishing tribute to dancer Bill Robinson ("Bojangles of Harlem") to the climactic duet that summed up the team's film-long relationship ("Never Gonna Dance"). By the time of Shall We Dance (1937), it was clear that some of the bloom was off the rose, and despite a good Gershwin score, the movie did not fare particularly well at the box office. After a change of partners (with pallid Joan Fontaine substituting for perky Ginger Rogers) in A Damsel in Distress (1937) and two more movies with Rogers (Carefree in 1938 and The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle in 1939), the two went their separate ways.
The six years in which Astaire danced with Rogers had been richly rewarding, for the team itself and for all those who took pleasure in their rapport on screen. Still, there were those whose contribution to the success of the Ginger-and-Fred musicals cannot be overlooked: producer Pandro S. Berman; Mark Sandrich, who directed five of the films; Allan Scott, who coauthored most of the films; and especially choreographer Hermes Pan, who codesigned and rehearsed Astaire's dances with the star.
In the years just after the team parted company, Astaire's film career was at a low ebb. Without the matchless give-and-take of Ginger Rogers, he was partnered in inferior films with actresses who could not measure up as dancers (Paulette Goddard in Second Chorus, 1940; Joan Leslie in The Sky's the Limit, 1943), or with an expert dancer who was not entirely suited to his style (Eleanor Powell in Broadway Melody of 1940). He had a ravishing partner in Rita Hayworth in two musicals (You'll Never Get Rich, 1941; You Were Never Lovelier, 1942), but her film-goddess hauteur was somewhat at odds with his lighter-than-air sophistication. Brought to Paramount for two Irving Berlin musicals opposite Bing Crosby (Holiday Inn, 1942; Blue Skies, 1946), he was obliged to play Crosby's diffident pal and, despite a few brilliant dancing turns, he seemed somehow diminished. Yet he remained personally active during the war years, touring to sell war bonds, or opening the first of a chain of dance studios under his name on Park Avenue.
Luckily, Astaire was now offered a long-term contract by MGM, which was establishing an enviable reputation for stylish musical films. These films may have lacked the intimacy and romantic aura of the best Astaire-Rogers vehicles, but they allowed Astaire to experiment with his dancing skill. In the star-laden revue Ziegfeld Follies (1946), his first for the studio since Dancing Lady, his numbers included the dazzling "Limehouse Blues," an exotic minidrama staged by the director Vincente Minnelli, with Astaire as an ill-fated Chinese coolie in a London slum.
For the balance of the 1940s and into the 1950s, Astaire found a compatible home for his art at Louis B. Mayer's studio. Teamed for the first time with Judy Garland in Irving Berlin's Easter Parade (1948), he was charged by her energy and ebullience, and their best numbers together, especially "A Couple of Swells," are pure exhilaration. When Garland was unable to return for a rematch in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), the studio summoned Astaire's old partner Ginger Rogers for one last turn together around the dance floor. (That year Astaire was awarded a special honorary Oscar.) He played songwriter Bert Kalmar in the enjoyable musical biography Three Little Words (1950), and he costarred with young Jane Powell in Royal Wedding (1951). The latter film featured Astaire's gravity-defying dance on the walls and ceiling of his hotel room.
Following a misstep with the leaden musical The Belle of New York (1952), Astaire starred in his most memorable MGM effort, The Band Wagon (1953). This effervescent musical borrowed some of the songs from the 1931 revue of the same name, but most of the movie created its very own sparkle, with stylish direction by Vincente Minnelli, a witty Betty Comden and Adolph Green screenplay that fleshed out the standard backstage plot, and a talented cast that included the lithe dancer Cyd Charisse and the British musical comedy star Jack Buchanan. Musical highlights included a rapturous Central Park duet by Astaire and Charisse to "Dancing in the Dark," and a satiric "Girl Hunt" ballet that spoofed Mickey Spillane's hard-boiled mystery novels.
By this time Astaire, now in his fifties, was ready to wind down (or at least slow down) his film career, but there was one more superb effort in the offing. After a middling Daddy Long Legs (1955), with Leslie Caron, Astaire costarred with Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), one of his very best late-career musicals. The movie's virtues were in the splendid Gershwin score and a visually stunning production.
After dancing with Cyd Charisse in Silk Stockings (1957), a moderately pleasing musical adaptation of the 1939 comedy Ninotchka, Astaire turned his attention from film to television, starring from 1958 to 1960 in three highly acclaimed musical specials. For the most part, however, his dancing shoes were set aside for dramatic roles on the small screen, turning up again for two television specials in 1968 and 1972. He danced one last time on screen as the Irish codger Finian McLonergan in Finian's Rainbow (1968), adapted from the long-running stage musical. For the balance of his career, Astaire confined himself to dramatic roles in such films as On the Beach (1959), The Pleasure of His Company (1961), and The Towering Inferno (1974); for his performance in the last of these he received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actor.
In 1978 Astaire was among the first to receive the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement, and in 1981 he was given the ninth Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. On a personal note, Astaire, who had always been a horse-racing enthusiast, married former jockey Robyn Smith in June 1980. After years of quiet retirement, he died of pneumonia at age eighty-eight. He is buried in Oakwood Memorial Park in Chatsworth, California.
© 2001 Gale Group
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