See his autobiography, Steps in Time (1959); biographies by B. Thomas (1985), B. Adler (1987), and J. Epstein (2008); J. Mueller, Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films (1985); A. Croce, The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (rev. ed. 1987); E. Gallafent, Astaire and Rogers (2002).
Astaire in Top Hat, 1935
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Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz; May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987) was an American Academy Award-winning film and Broadway stage dancer, choreographer, singer and 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 Balanchine and Rudolph Nureyev rated 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. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of All Time by the American Film Institute.
Astaire was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Johanna "Ann" (née Geilus ) and Frederic "Fritz" Austerlitz (b. September 8 1868, in Linz, baptised as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz) who was a brewer. Astaire's mother was born in the United States to Lutheran German immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace, and Astaire's father was a Catholic of Jewish ancestry; Astaire became an Episcopalian in 1912.
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 vaudeville at 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".
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 Jersey in a "tryout theater", and the local paper wrote, "the Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville.
After a short time, as a result of their father's salesmanship, Fred and Adele landed a major contract and they played the famed Orpheum circuit 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 Society and the child labor laws of the time.
Their career resumed with mixed fortunes, though with increasing skill and polish, as they began to incorporate tap dancing into their routines. In this Astaire was inspired by Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and John “Bubbles” Sublett. From vaudeville dancer Aurelio Coccia, they learned the tango, waltz, and other ballroom dances popularized by Vernon and Irene Castle.
Some sources state that the Astaire siblings appeared in a 1915 film entitled Fanchon, the Cricket, starring Mary Pickford, but the Astaires have consistently denied this.
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. 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.
They followed up with several more shows and of their work in The Passing Show of 1918, Heywood Broun wrote "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.
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 London stage 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 Benchley wrote 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.
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. 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. Recently, 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.
Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.The producer of the Astaire-Rogers pictures Pandro S. Berman claimed he had never heard the story in the 1930s and that it only emerged years later. 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". 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." 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 Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady.
On his return to RKO Pictures, he got fifth billing alongside Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores Del Rio vehicle 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."
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." That partnership, and the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film 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 Hepburn reportedly said, "He gives her class and she gives him sex."
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.
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), his first 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.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce, Hannah Hyam and John Mueller 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 by Hermes Pan and Stanley Donen. Film critic Pauline Kael adopts a more neutral stance, while Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel writes "The nostalgia surrounding Rogers-Astaire tends to bleach out other partners.
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.
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.
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 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.
In 1939, Astaire left RKO to freelance and 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 Crosby in 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 Goddard in Second Chorus (1940), in which he dance-conducted the Artie Shaw orchestra.
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 Ballet tribute to Astaire. He next appeared opposite the seventeen-year-old Joan Leslie in 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 Kelly to "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 Studios in 1947 — which he subsequently sold in 1966.
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 Award in 1999, a special Grammy award to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance.
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).
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 Knox it 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 dog owner in the cult movie The Amazing Dobermans, co-starring Barbara Eden and James Franciscus. In 1978, Fred Astaire co-starred with Helen Hayes in a well-received television film, A Family Upside Down, in which they play an elderly couple coping with failing health. Astaire won an Emmy Award for his performance. He made a well-publicized guest appearance on the science fiction TV 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 Douglas and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
Astaire was a virtuoso dancer, 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-American rhythms, classical dance and the elevated style of Vernon and Irene Castle, 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 his "outlaw style", an unpredictable and instinctive blending of personal artistry. His dances are economical yet endlessly nuanced, 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. 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!
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.
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", 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. 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 Minnelli stated, "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. As Astaire himself observed, "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 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 Jackson and 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."
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 Fabray he delivered Betty Comden and 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 - the grace and elegance so prized in his dancing seemed to be reflected in his singing, a capacity for synthesis which led Burton Lane to describe him as "The world's greatest musical performer." 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 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. 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 4 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.
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 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. 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). 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.
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 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. He remarried in 1980, to Robyn Smith, an actress turned champion jockey almost 45 years his junior. Smith was a jockey for Alfred G. Vanderbilt II.
Astaire died from pneumonia on June 22, 1987, at the age of 88. 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 commented, "It is there because I have no particular desire to have my life misinterpreted, which it would be.
(*) performances with Ginger Rogers