Fred Astaire (born Frederick Austerlitz; May 10, 1899 – June 22, 1987) was an American dancer, choreographer, singer, musician and actor.
His stage and subsequent film and television careers spanned a total of 76 years, during which he made 31 musical films and several award-winning television specials and issued numerous recordings. He was named the fifth Greatest Male Star of Old Hollywood by the American Film Institute. He is best known as the dancing partner and on-screen romantic interest of Ginger Rogers, with whom he co-starred in a series of ten Hollywood musicals which transformed the genre.
Gene Kelly, another major innovator in filmed dance, said that "the history of dance on film begins with Astaire." Beyond film and television, many noted dancers and choreographers, including Rudolf Nureyev, Sammy Davis, Jr., Michael Jackson, Gregory Hines, Mikhail Baryshnikov, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, and Madhuri Dixit, also acknowledged his importance and influence. Astaire ranks as the fifth greatest male star of Classic Hollywood cinema in AFI's 100 Years...100 Stars.
Life and career
1899–1917: Early life and career
Astaire was born 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 was born in the United States, to Lutheran German immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace. Astaire's father was born in Linz, Austria, to Jewish parents who had converted to Roman Catholicism.
After arriving in New York City at age 24 on October 26, 1892, and being inspected at Ellis Island, Astaire's father, hoping to find work in his brewing 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 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 , 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 titled Fanchon, the Cricket, starring Mary Pickford, but the Astaires have consistently denied this.:103
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 was to deeply affect 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. The Astaires performed for U.S. and Allied troops at this time too.
1917–1933: Stage career in Broadway and London
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, owing 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 Jerome Kern's The Bunch and Judy (1922), 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. It is said he did the first moonwalk in 1926 and it was later used in a few of his first movies. 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.":5
They split in 1932 when Adele married her first husband, Lord Charles Arthur Francis Cavendish, a son of the Duke of Devonshire. Fred Astaire went on to achieve success on his own on Broadway and in London with 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 with a new partner (Claire Luce), he created a romantic partnered dance to Cole Porter's "Night and Day," which had been written for The Gay Divorcee. Luce stated that she had to encourage him to take a more romantic approach: "Come on, Fred, I'm not your sister, you know.":6 The success of the stage play was credited to this number and, when recreated in the film version of the play The Gay Divorcee (1934), it ushered in a new era in filmed dance.:23,26,61 Recently, film footage taken by Fred Stone of Astaire performing in Gay Divorcee 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.
1933–1939: Astaire and Rogers at RKO
According to Hollywood folklore, a screen test report on Astaire for RKO Radio Pictures, now lost along with the test, is reported to have read: "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.:7 Astaire later 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.":7 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, he got fifth billing after fourth billed Ginger Rogers in the 1933 Dolores del Río 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.:7
Having already been linked to his sister Adele on stage, Astaire was initially very reluctant to become part of another dance team. 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.":8 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 ten films together, including The Gay Divorcee, Roberta (1935), 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.":134
Astaire received a percentage of the films' 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.:23,26 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.":420 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.
Dance commentators Arlene Croce,:6 Hannah Hyam:146,147 and John Mueller:8,9 consider Rogers to have been Astaire's greatest dance partner, 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's 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 Flying Down to Rio. 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." In his book Ginger: Salute to a Star author Dick Richards quotes Astaire saying to Raymond Rohauer, curator of the New York Gallery of Modern Art, "Ginger was brilliantly effective. She made everything work for her. Actually she made things very fine for both of us and she deserves most of the credit for our success."
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 know 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.":16
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:410 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.
1940–1947: Drifting to an early retirement
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." 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). 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), 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, 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.
1948–1957: Productive years with MGM and second retirement
However, he soon 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 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 songs by the Gershwins, 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).
1957–1981: Branching out into televised dance and straight acting
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 an Indian summer 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 recently 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 personally won the Emmy for Best Single Performance by an Actor but the choice had a controversial backlash because many felt that his dancing in the special was not the type of "acting" for which the award was designed. At one point Astaire even offered to return the award, but the Television Academy refused to consider it.
Astaire played the role of Julian Osborne, a non-dancing acting role, 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 additional 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. 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. Unfortunately, the film was a box-office failure, though it has gained a strong reputation over the years since its release.
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), 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. 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 very brief song-and-dance routines with Kelly, his last dance performances in a musical film. In the summer of 1975, he made three albums in London, , 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. 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. 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.
Working methods and influence on filmed dance
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 reshot. The 1994 documentary That's Entertainment! 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 black 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.":18 Astaire further observed:
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!:15
With very few exceptions, Astaire created his routines in collaboration with other choreographers, primarily Hermes Pan. They 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 or one of them would 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.:15
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.:20 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, that he or his collaborator had thought up earlier and saved for the right situation. They 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 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.":16 As Astaire himself observed, "I've never yet got anything 100% right. Still it's never as bad as I think it is.":16
Michael Kidd, who choreographed the 1953 film The Band Wagon, found that his own concern about the emotional motivation behind the dance was not shared by Astaire. Kidd later recounted: "Technique was important to him. He'd say, 'Let's do the steps. Let's add the looks later.' "
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."
Influence on popular song
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 The Gay Divorcee (1932), 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).
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.":21 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:21 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.:123,128 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 1940 and nurtured a lifelong ambition to be a successful popular song composer.
Awards, honors and 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 Eastman Award from the George Eastman House for "outstanding contributions to motion pictures"
- 1968: He was inducted into the Hall of Fame of the International Best Dressed List in 1968.
- 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, "The Nostalgia Magazine".
- 1972: Inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame
- 1973: Subject of a Gala by the Film Society of Lincoln Center
- 1975: Academy Award nomination for The Towering Inferno
- 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 American Film Institute
- 1982: The Anglo-American Contemporary Dance Foundation announces creation of 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)
- 1987: Inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, New York
- 1989: Posthumous award of Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1989: Posthumous induction into the Television Hall of Fame
- 1991: Posthumous induction into the Ballroom Dancer's Hall of Fame
- 1999: Posthumous award of Grammy Hall of Fame Award for 1952 The Astaire Story album
- 2000: Ava Astaire McKenzie unveils a plaque in honor of her father, erected by the citizens of Lismore, County Waterford, Ireland
- 2003: Referenced in the animated feature The Triplets of Belleville, in which Astaire is eaten by his shoes after a fast-paced dance act.
- 2008: Life and work honored at Oriel College, University of Oxford
- The "Adele and Fred Astaire Ballroom" added on the top floor of Gottlieb Storz Mansion in Astaire's hometown of Omaha
Politically, Astaire was a conservative and a lifelong Republican Party supporter, though he never made his political views publicly known. Along with Bing Crosby, George Murphy, Ginger Rogers, and others, he was a charter (founding) member of the Hollywood Republican Committee. He was churchgoing, supportive of American military action, and dismissive of the increasing open sexuality in movies of the 1970s.
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, cravats, and slacks—the latter usually held up by the idiosyncratic use of an old tie in place of a belt.
Astaire was married for the first time in 1933, to the 25-year-old Phyllis Potter (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 roughly two years, and despite the objections of his mother and sister. 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), appeared with his father in the movie Midas Run but 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 heritage.
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.
On June 24, 1980, he was married again, to Robyn Smith (born August 14, 1944), a jockey 45 years his junior, who rode for Alfred G. Vanderbilt II and was herself on the cover of Sports Illustrated on July 31, 1972.
Astaire died from pneumonia on June 22, 1987, at the age of 88. Shortly before his death, Astaire said: "I didn't want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was, thank you Michael" - referring to Michael Jackson. 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, 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."