Born Frederick Austerlitz, in Omaha, Nebraska, on May 10, 1899, dancer, actor, singer, musician & choreographer, better known as Fred Astaire, worked steadily in various entertainment media during nine decades of the 20th century. The most celebrated dancer in the history of film, with appearances in 31 movie musicals between 1933 and 1968 (and a special [Academy Award] in recognition of his accomplishments in them), Astaire also danced on-stage and on television (garnering two [Emmy Awards] in the process), and he even treated listening audiences to his accomplished tap dancing on records and on his own radio series.
He appeared in another eight non-musical feature films and on numerous television programs, resulting in an [Academy Award] nomination and a third [Emmy Award] as an actor. His light tenor voice and smooth, conversational phrasing made him an ideal interpreter for the major songwriters of his era, and he introduced dozens of pop standards, many of them written expressly for him, by such composers as Harold Arlen, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Burton Lane, Frank Loesser, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, Arthur Schwartz, Harry Warren, and Vincent Youmans. Although his efforts as a dancer necessarily overshadowed his purely musical work, he made hundreds of recordings over a period of more than 50 years, resulting in several major hits.
Astaire's long career breaks down neatly into four major phases. From 1905 to 1917, he and his sister Adele Astaire (b. Sep 10, 1897; d. Jan 25, 1981) danced and sang as the team of Fred and Adele Astaire in vaudeville. From 1917 to 1933, Astaire worked in the legitimate theater in 11 stage musicals, ten of them with his sister. From 1933 to 1957, he appeared in 30 movie musicals, ten of them teaming him with Ginger Rogers. From 1957 to 1981, he worked mostly as a character actor in films and on television.
Although Fred and Adele Astaire received considerable critical attention and achieved stardom on Broadway, no documentation beyond their reviews and a handful of recordings exists to preserve their legacy. On the other hand, Astaire's partnership with Rogers, immortalized on film, continues to fascinate viewers of succeeding decades as much as it did those who attended the movies in the '30s.
In those days, Astaire, gliding across polished dancefloors in his trademark "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails" (as Berlin put it in a song written for him), with Rogers beside him in a spectacular gown, served as an antidote for the Depression that gripped the country and reassured millions of filmgoers that elegance and gentility could overcome economic turmoil. This was Astaire's popular peak, when he and Rogers were among the country's biggest box-office stars, when his records topped the charts, and his radio show was listened to by millions every week. But his lengthy career was marked by a series of triumphs that made him one of the best-loved entertainers of the century.
His father, Frederic (no "k") Austerlitz, was an Austrian immigrant who worked as a salesman for the Storz Brewing Company but was also a pianist with a strong interest in the performing arts. His mother, Johanna (nee: Gelius), shared this interest, and when his sister Adele Marie, who was 20 months his senior, showed a talent for dancing as a small child, she was enrolled at Chambers' Dancing Academy. The family faced a financial crisis in 1904 when a temperance movement led to the closing of the brewery, and they met it in surprising fashion by deciding that mother, daughter, and son would move to New York where Adele could be enrolled in the dancing school run by Claude Alvienne with an eye toward a professional career. Johanna, Adele, and Fred Austerlitz (soon renamed Ann, Adele, and Fred Astaire) arrived in New York in January 1905, and, shortly after Adele began studying with Alvienne, Fred joined her, creating the dance team of Fred and Adele Astaire, which made its professional debut in a vaudeville act created by Alvienne in Keyport, NJ, in November 1905. Astaire was six-years-old, his sister was eight.
Adele Astaire gave her final performance in the musical, [The Band Wagon,] in Chicago, on March 15, 1932. On May 9, she married Charles Cavendish, the son of the Duke of Devonshire, and went to live with him in Ireland, retiring from her performing career. Fred carried on without her.
THE TALENTED MR. ASTAIRE: 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 Finian's Rainbow (1968), Astaire's last film musical). 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.
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, black rhythms and classical dance 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 termed his eclectic approach, "an unpredictable and instinctive blending of personal artistry." As Jerome Robbins stated, "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. 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!"
With very few exceptions, Astaire created his routines in collaboration with other choreographers, primarily Hermes Pan. 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. Many of his dances were built around a "gimmick," such as dancing on the walls in [Royal Wedding,] or dancing with his shadows in [Swing Time.] Astaire & his collaborator would spend weeks creating all the dance sequences in a secluded rehearsal space before filming would begin, working with a rehearsal pianist (often the composer Hal Borne) who in turn would communicate modifications to the musical orchestrators.
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, then record the singing and music. With all the preparation completed, the actual shooting would go quickly, conserving costs. Astaire agonized during the entire process, and once said, "I've never yet got anything 100% right. Still it's never as bad as I think it is."
Although he viewed himself as an entertainer first and foremost, his consummate artistry won him the admiration of such twentieth century dance legends as Kelly, George Balanchine, the Nicholas Brothers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Rudolph Nureyev, Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson and Bill Robinson. Balanchine compared him to Bach, describing him as "the most interesting, the most inventive, the most elegant dancer of our times," while for Baryshnikov he was "a genius... a classical dancer like I never saw in my life." And according to Gene Kelly, another major innovator in filmed dance, , "The history of dance on film begins with Astaire."
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," from Gay Divorce (1932); Irving Berlin's, "Isn't This a Lovely Day?," "Cheek to Cheek" and "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails," from [Top Hat] (1935); "Let's Face the Music and Dance," from [Follow the Fleet] (1936); "The Way You Look Tonight," from [Swing Time] (1936); the Gershwins' "They Can't Take That Away From Me," from [Shall We Dance] (1937), "A Foggy Day" and "Nice Work if You Can Get it," from [A Damsel in Distress] (1937); "Change Prtners" from [Carefree] (1938); Johnny Mercer's, "One for My Baby." from [The Sky's the Limit] (1943); "Something's Gotta Give" from [Daddy Long Legs] (1955); and Harry Warren's & 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, they recorded the Gershwins' "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise," from [Stop Flirting] (1923); "Fascinating Rhythm," from [Lady, Be Good] (1924); and "Funny Face," from [Funny Face] (1927).
In duets with Ginger Rogers, he presented Irving Berlin's, "I'm Putting all My Eggs in One Basket," from [Follow the Fleet] (1936), Jerome Kern's, "Pick Yourself Up" and "A Fine Romance," from [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's & 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. Burton Lane, said of his ability, "the grace and elegance so prized in his dancing seemed to be reflected in his singing. Burton Lane described him as, "The world's greatest musical perrformer." 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 admired his unique treatment of his 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, Lorenz 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 four 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.
- AWARDS, HONORS & TRIBUTES:
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 2008 - Conference to honor the life and work of Fred Astaire at Oriel College, University of Oxford, June 21-24.
Built in 1905, the Gottlieb Storz Mansion in 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.
Astaire is referenced in the 2003 animated feature, [The Triplets of Belleville,] in which he is eaten by his shoes after a fast-paced dance act.
PERSONAL LIFE: 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 never really cared for) in favor of a breezy casual style of tailored sports jackets, colored shirts, cravats and 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. Phyllis's death from lung cancer, at the age of 46, ended 21 years of a blissful marriage and left Astaire devastated. Consumed with grief, Astaire wanted to drop out of the film [Daddy Long Legs] (1955), his project at the time. 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). 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,] (1969). Ultimately, Peter became a pilot and rancher.
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 appears in the documentary, [A Couple of Song and Dance Men] with film historian Ken Barnes, a supplement on the DVD release of [Holiday Inn] (1942) starring Astaire and Bing Crosby. She is married to Richard McKenzie and divides her time between London and Ireland.
His friend David Niven described him as "a pixie, timid, always warm-hearted, with a penchant for schoolboy jokes."
Astaire was a lifelong golf and Thoroughbred horse racing enthusiast. In 1946 his horse, Triplicate, won the prestigious Hollywood Gold Cup and San Juan Capistrano Handicap. He remained physically active well into his eighties. At age seventy-eight, he broke his left wrist while riding his grandson's skateboard.
In 1980, at age 81, he married for a second time to Robyn Smith, a jockey turned actress, who was almost 45 years his junior.
Astaire died from pneumonia on June 22, 1987, at the age of eighty-eight. He 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. He always refused permission for such portrayals, saying, "However much they offer me - and offers come in all the time - I shall not sell." Astaire's will included a clause requesting that no such portrayal ever take place. He once commented about the clause in his will saying, "It is there because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be."
[Biography written by William Ruhlmann, edited by bri4daz.]
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