Widely regarded as one of the most influential dancers in the history of film and television musicals.
Flying Down to Rio
Follow the Fleet
Shall We Dance
A Damsel in Distress
The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle
Broadway Melody of 1940
You’ll Never Get Rich
You Were Never Lovelier
The Sky’s the Limit
Yolanda and the Thief
Three Little Words
The Pleasure of His Company
The Belle of New York
Daddy Long Legs
On the Beach
The Notorious Landlady
That’s Entertainment, Part II
The Amazing Dobermans
The Purple Taxi
That’s Entertainment! III
I’m just a hoofer with a spare set of tails. ~ Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska, the son of Johanna “Ann” (née Geilus) and Frederic “Fritz” Austerlitz (born September 8, 1868 as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz).
Astaire’s mother dreamed of escaping Omaha by virtue of her children’s talents, after Astaire’s sister, Adele Astaire, early on revealed herself to be an instinctive dancer and singer. She planned a “brother and sister act,” which was common in vaudeville at the time. Although Astaire refused dance lessons at first, he easily mimicked his older sister’s steps and took up piano, accordion, and clarinet.
When their father suddenly lost his job, the family moved to New York City in 1905 to launch the show business career of the children, who began training at the Alviene Master School of the Theatre and Academy of Cultural Arts.
Despite Adele and Fred’s teasing rivalry, they quickly acknowledged their individual strengths, his durability and her greater talent. Fred and Adele’s mother suggested they change their name to “Astaire,” as she felt “Austerlitz” sounded reminiscent of the name of a battle. Family legend attributes the name to an uncle surnamed “L’Astaire.” They were taught dance, speaking, and singing in preparation for developing an act. Their first act was called Juvenile Artists Presenting an Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty. Fred wore a top hat and tails in the first half and a lobster outfit in the second. In an interview, Astaire’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, observed that they often put Fred in a top hat to make him look taller. The goofy act debuted in Keyport, New Jersey, in a “tryout theater.” The local paper wrote, “the Astaires are the greatest child act in vaudeville.”
As a result of their father’s salesmanship, Fred and Adele rapidly landed a major contract and played the famed Orpheum Circuit in the Midwest, Western and some Southern cities in the United States. 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 to let time take its course and to avoid trouble from the Gerry Society and the child labor laws of the time. In 1912, Fred became an Episcopalian. The career of the Astaire siblings resumed with mixed fortunes, though with increasing skill and polish, as they began to incorporate tap dancing into their routines. Astaire’s dancing 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.
By age 14, Fred had taken on the musical responsibilities for their act. He first met George Gershwin, who was working as a song plugger for Jerome H. Remick’s music publishing company, in 1916. Fred had already been hunting for new music and dance ideas. Their chance meeting deeply affected the careers of both artists. Astaire was always on the lookout for new steps on the circuit and was starting to demonstrate his ceaseless quest for novelty and perfection. The Astaires broke into Broadway in 1917 with Over the Top, a patriotic revue, and performed for U.S. and Allied troops at this time as well.
During the 1920s, Fred and Adele appeared on Broadway and on the London stage. By then, Astaire’s tap dancing was recognized as among the best.
In 1927, the Astaires went to Hollywood for a screen test (now lost) at Paramount Pictures, but Paramount deemed them unsuitable for films.
They split in 1932 when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Cavendish, second son of the 9th Duke of Devonshire. Fred went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with Gay Divorce (later made into the film The Gay Divorcee), 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 working with new partner Claire Luce, Fred 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.” The success of the stage play was credited to this number and, when recreated in The Gay Divorcee (1934), the film version of the play, it 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 known performance footage of Astaire.
RKO’s plans for Astaire, first lending him for a few days to MGM in 1933 for his significant Hollywood debut, where he appeared as himself dancing with Joan Crawford in the successful musical film Dancing Lady. On his return to RKO, he got fifth billing after fourth billed Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores del Río vehicle Flying Down to Rio.
Having already been linked to his sister Adele on stage, Astaire was initially very reluctant to become part of another dance team.
However, he was persuaded by the obvious public appeal of the Astaire-Rogers pairing. The partnership, and the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan, helped make dancing an important element of the Hollywood film musical.
Astaire and Rogers made nine films together at RKO, including The Gay Divorcee (1934), Roberta (1935, in which Astaire also demonstrates his oft-overlooked piano skills with a spirited solo on “I Won’t Dance“), Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Swing Time (1936), Shall We Dance (1937), and Carefree (1938). Six out of the nine Astaire-Rogers musicals 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 appeal.” Astaire received a percentage of the films’ profits, something extremely rare in actors’ contracts at that time.
Astaire was also given complete autonomy over how the dances would be presented, allowing him to revolutionize dance on film. He is credited with two important innovations in early film musicals. First, he insisted that a closely tracking dolly camera film a dance routine in as few shots as possible, typically with just four to eight cuts, while holding the dancers in full view at all times. This gave the illusion of an almost stationary camera filming an entire dance in a single shot. Astaire famously quipped: “Either the camera will dance, or I will.” Astaire maintained this policy from The Gay Divorcee in 1934 onwards until his last film musical, Finian’s Rainbow, made in 1968, when he was overruled by director Francis Ford Coppola.
Astaire’s style of dance sequences, which allowed the viewer to follow the dancers and choreography in their entirety, clearly contrasted with the Busby Berkeley musicals, which were known for dance sequences filled with extravagant aerial shots and dozens of cuts for quick takes and zooms on certain areas of the body, such as a chorus row of arms or legs.
Astaire’s second innovation involved the context of the dance; he 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 at least three standard dances: a solo performance by Astaire—which he termed his “sock solo,” a partnered comedy dance routine, and a partnered romantic dance routine.
Astaire was still unwilling to have his career tied exclusively to any partnership, however. He negotiated with RKO to strike out on his own with A Damsel in Distress in 1937 with an inexperienced, non-dancing Joan Fontaine, 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 because of increased production costs, and Astaire left RKO, after being labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Film Journal. Astaire was reunited with Rogers in 1949 at MGM for their final outing, The Barkleys of Broadway, the only one of their films together to be shot in Technicolor.
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, in which they performed a celebrated extended dance routine to Cole Porter’s “Begin the Beguine.” In his autobiography Steps in Time, Astaire remarked, “She ‘put ’em down like a man,’ no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself.”
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 daughter of his former vaudeville dance idols, the Cansinos. The first, You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), catapulted Hayworth to stardom and provided Astaire his third on-screen opportunity to integrate Latin American dance idioms into his style (the first being with Ginger Rogers in “The Carioca” number from Flying Down to Rio (1933) and the second, again with Rogers, was the “Dengozo” dance from The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939)), 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’s 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), in which 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, was 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 in 1947 founded the Fred Astaire Dance Studios, which he subsequently sold in 1966.
Retirement didn’t last long. Astaire returned to the big screen to replace the injured Kelly in Easter Parade (1948) opposite Judy Garland, Ann Miller, and Peter Lawford and for a final reunion with Rogers (replacing Judy Garland) in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). Both of these films revived Astaire’s popularity and in 1950 he starred in two musicals – one for M-G-M – Three Little Words with Vera-Ellen and Red Skelton and one on loan-out to Paramount – Let’s Dance with Betty Hutton. While Three Little Words did quite well at the box office, Let’s Dance was a financial disappointment. Royal Wedding (1951) with Jane Powell and Peter Lawford proved to be very successful, but The Belle of New York (1952) with Vera-Ellen was a critical and box-office disaster. The Band Wagon (1953), which is considered to be one of the finest musicals ever made, received rave reviews from critics and drew huge crowds. But because of its excessive cost, it failed to make a profit on its first release. Soon after, Astaire, along with all the other remaining stars at M-G-M, was let go from his contract because of the advent of television and the downsizing of film production. In 1954, Astaire was about to start work on a new musical, Daddy Long Legs (1955) with Leslie Caron at 20th Century Fox, when his wife Phyllis became ill and suddenly died of lung cancer. Astaire was so bereaved that he wanted to shut down the picture and offered to pay the production costs out of his own pocket. However, Johnny Mercer (the film’s composer) and Fox studio executives convinced him that work would be the best thing for him at that time. When Daddy Long Legs was released in 1955, it did only moderately well at the box office. His next film for Paramount, Funny Face (1957), teamed him with Audrey Hepburn and Kay Thompson and despite the sumptuousness of the production and the strong reviews from critics, it failed to make back its cost. Similarly, Astaire’s next project – his final musical at M-G-M, Silk Stockings (1957), in which he co-starred with Cyd Charisse, also lost money at the box office. As a result, Astaire withdrew from motion pictures for two years.
During 1952, Astaire recorded The Astaire Story, a four-volume album with a quintet led by Oscar Peterson. The album, produced by Norman Granz, provided a musical overview of Astaire’s career. 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 30 musical films in 25 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 did not retire from dancing completely. He made a series of four highly rated Emmy Award-winning musical specials for television in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1968, each featuring Barrie Chase, with whom Astaire enjoyed a renewed period of dance creativity. The first of these programs, 1958’s An Evening with Fred Astaire, won nine Emmy Awards, including “Best Single Performance by an Actor” and “Most Outstanding Single Program of the Year.” It was also noteworthy for being the first major broadcast to be prerecorded on color videotape and has been restored. The restoration won a technical Emmy in 1988 for Ed Reitan, Don Kent, and Dan Einstein, who restored the original videotape, transferring its contents to a modern format and filling in gaps where the tape had deteriorated with kinescope footage. Astaire won the Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor, but the choice had a controversial backlash because many believed that his dancing in the special was not the type of “acting” for which the award was designed. At one point Astaire offered to return the award, but the Television Academy refused to consider it.
Astaire played Julian Osborne, a non-dancing character, in the 1959 movie On the Beach and was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor award for his performance, losing to Stephen Boyd in Ben-Hur. Astaire appeared in non-dancing roles in three other films and several television series from 1957 to 1969.
Astaire’s last major musical film was Finian’s Rainbow (1968), directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Astaire shed his white tie and tails to play an Irish rogue who believes that if he buries a crock of gold in the shadows of Fort Knox the gold will multiply. Astaire’s dance partner was Petula Clark, who played his character’s skeptical daughter. He described himself as nervous about singing with her, while she said she was worried about dancing with him. The film was a modest success both at the box office and among critics.
Astaire continued to act in the 1970s, appearing on television as the father of Robert Wagner’s character, Alexander Mundy, in It Takes a Thief and in such films as The Towering Inferno (1974), in which he danced with Jennifer Jones and for which he received his only Academy Award nomination, in the category of Best Supporting Actor. He voiced the mailman narrator in the 1970s animated television specials Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town and The Easter Bunny Is Comin’ to Town. Astaire also appeared in the first two That’s Entertainment! documentaries, in the mid 1970s. In the second compilation, aged seventy-six, he performed brief dance linking sequences with Kelly, 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, Astaire played a supporting role, as a dog owner, in the cult movie The Amazing Dobermans, co-starring Barbara Eden and James Franciscus. Fred Astaire played Dr. Seamus Scully in the French film The Purple Taxi (1977).
In 1978, he co-starred with Helen Hayes in a well received television film, A Family Upside Down, in which they played 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 television series Battlestar Galactica in 1979, as Chameleon, the possible father of Starbuck, in “The Man with Nine Lives,” a role written for him by Donald P. Bellisario. Astaire asked his agent to obtain a role for him on Galactica because of his grandchildren’s interest in the series. This episode marked the final time that he danced on screen. He acted nine different roles in The Man in the Santa Claus Suit in 1979. 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.
Although he viewed himself as an entertainer first and foremost, his consummate artistry won him the admiration of such twentieth century dance legends as Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, the Nicholas Brothers, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Margot Fonteyn, Bob Fosse, Gregory Hines, Rudolf Nureyev, Michael 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.”
Extremely modest about his singing abilities (he frequently claimed that he could not sing, but the critics rated him as among the finest), Astaire introduced some of the most celebrated songs from the Great American Songbook, in particular, Cole Porter’s: “Night and Day” in Gay Divorce (1932) and “So Near and yet So Far” in You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), Irving Berlin’s “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?“, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails” in Top Hat (1935), “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” in Follow the Fleet (1936) and “Change Partners” in Carefree (1938). He first presented Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” in Swing Time (1936); the Gershwins’ “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” in Shall We Dance (1937), “A Foggy Day” and “Nice Work if You Can Get it” in A Damsel in Distress (1937); Johnny Mercer’s “One for My Baby” from The Sky’s the Limit (1943) and “Something’s Gotta Give” from Daddy Long Legs (1955); and Harry Warren and 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, 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 Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz’s “That’s Entertainment” from The Band Wagon (1953).
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 1940 and nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a successful popular song composer
Always immaculately turned out, he and Cary Grant were called the best dressed actor[s] in American movies. Astaire remained a male fashion icon even into his later years, eschewing his trademark top hat, white tie, and tails (for which he never really cared) in favor of a breezy casual style of tailored sports jackets, colored shirts and slacks—the latter usually held up by the idiosyncratic use of an old tie or silk scarf in place of a belt.
Astaire married 25-year-old Phyllis Potter in 1933 (formerly Phyllis Livingston Baker; born 1908, died September 13, 1954), a Boston-born New York socialite and former wife of Eliphalet Nott Potter III (1906–1981), after pursuing her ardently for about two years, and despite his mother and sister’s objections. Phyllis’s death from lung cancer, at the age of 46, ended 21 years of a blissful marriage and left Astaire devastated. Astaire attempted to drop out of the film Daddy Long Legs (1955), which he was in the process of filming, offering to pay the production costs to date, but was persuaded to stay.
In addition to Phyllis Potter’s son, Eliphalet IV (known as Peter), the Astaires had two children. Fred, Jr. (born January 21, 1936), who appeared with his father in the movie Midas Run and later became a charter pilot and rancher instead of an actor. Their daughter Ava Astaire (born March 19, 1942; married Richard McKenzie) remains actively involved in promoting her late father’s legacy. Fred Astaire was a devoted father and would often dance down the stairs of the family’s home every morning, simply to entertain his children.
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 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.
On June 24, 1980, at the age of 81, he married a second time. Robyn Smith (born August 14, 1944), was 45 years his junior and a jockey who rode for Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated July 31, 1972
Astaire died of 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’s life has never been portrayed on film. He always refused permission for such portrayals. Astaire’s will included a clause requesting that no such portrayal ever take place.
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