Debbie Reynolds: Actor who shot to stardom in ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ at the age of 19

Her greatest fame may have come from the Hollywood scandal involving her husband and a glamorous young widow – Elizabeth Taylor

 

Debbie Reynolds, the wholesome movie ingénue in 1950s films such as Singin’ in the Rain and Tammy and the Bachelor, died on December 28th, a day after the death of her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher. She was 84.

The day before she died, Reynolds expressed gratitude to her daughter’s fans on Facebook. “Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter,” she wrote. “I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop.”

Reynolds’s career peak may have been her best-actress Academy Award nomination for the title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), a rags-to-riches Western musical based on a true story. Her best-remembered film is probably Singin’ in the Rain (1952), a classic musical about 1920s moviemaking, in which she held her own with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor – although she was only 19 when the movie was shot and had never danced professionally before. Her fans also cherished her roles in films such as Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), in which she played a moonshiner’s wide-eyed granddaughter who spouted folksy wisdom.

Her greatest fame, however, may have come from the Hollywood scandal involving her husband and a glamorous young widow. In 1955, Reynolds married Eddie Fisher, a boyish music idol whose hits included Oh! My Pa-Pa, and the young couple were embraced by fan magazines as America’s sweethearts. Their best friends were producer Mike Todd and his new wife, film star Elizabeth Taylor.

When Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, Reynolds and Fisher rushed to comfort Taylor. Fisher’s comforting, however, turned into a very public extramarital affair. He and Reynolds were divorced early the next year, and he and Taylor were married weeks after the decree. That marriage lasted five years. Taylor left Fisher for Richard Burton, whom she had met in Rome on the set of Cleopatra (1963).

Almost 40 years later, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Reynolds said of Taylor, “Probably she did me a great favour.” In her 1988 autobiography, Debbie: My Life, she described a marriage that was unhappy from the beginning. “He didn’t think I was funny,” Reynolds wrote of Fisher. “I wasn’t good in bed. I didn’t make good gefilte fish or good chopped liver. So what did he have? A cute little girl next door with a little turned-up nose. That was, in fact, all he actually ever said he wanted from me. The children, he said, better have your nose.”

Mary Frances Reynolds was born in 1932, in El Paso, Texas. Her father, Ray, worked for the railroad and struggled financially during the Depression. Her mother, Maxene, took in laundry to help make ends meet. As Nazarene Baptists, they considered movies sinful.

Ray moved to California when Mary Frances was seven, and the family soon followed. Her career dream was to go to college and become a gym teacher, she often said, but when she was named Miss Burbank 1948, everything changed. Two of the judges were movie-studio scouts, and she was soon under contract to Warner Bros, which changed her name.

In 1950 she made her movie debut in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, followed rapidly by a number of other movies. Her roles seemed to mirror 1950s attitudes toward love, marriage and family. In 1955 she played a marriage-minded all-American girl opposite Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap. In 1956 she starred with her new husband in Bundle of Joy.

Reynolds was a popular co-star in a long string of films, mostly lighthearted romantic comedies including The Gazebo (1959). She was part of the all-star ensemble cast of How the West Was Won (1963), a rare drama among her more than three dozen movie credits.

She took a stab at series television with a sitcom, The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969), in which she played a wacky Lucy Ricardo-like wife who wanted to be a journalist like her husband. It lasted only one season. But she soon achieved a kind of immortality as the voice of Charlotte the selfless spider in Charlotte’s Web (1973).

She had married Harry Karl, a wealthy shoe manufacturer, in 1960, but by the time they divorced, in 1973, he had gambled away or otherwise misspent both his fortune and hers. Reynolds set out to re-establish herself financially. She headed to New York to make her Broadway debut in a revival of the 1920s musical Irene, for which she received a Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical. She made her last Broadway appearance in 1983. She later toured the country with stage shows including Annie Get Your Gun and a new version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

She had taken her musical and comedy talents to Las Vegas in the 1960 and became a fixture there in the 1970s and 1980s. She and her third husband, Richard Hamlett, a Virginia real estate developer, established a hotel, casino and movie-memorabilia museum there. But there were financial problems, and the property had to be sold in the 1990s.

For a while, Reynolds seemed to be better known as the mother of Carrie Fisher – who shot to stardom as Princess Leia in the Star Wars movies and wrote semi-autobiographical novels – than as an actress or singer. Fisher’s 1987 book, Postcards from the Edge, made into a film starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine, reflected the sometimes-difficult relationship between her and her famous mother.

Reynolds’s career took something of a back seat to her personal life when she married Hamlett in 1984, but they divorced 12 years later. In 1996, Reynolds made a big-screen comeback in Mother. Her uncharacteristically low-key comic performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination. She won new fans with a recurring role on sitcom Will & Grace.

Reynolds continued acting and doing voice work in both films and television into her late 70s. She appears in the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in October, and of which her son is a producer.

She is survived by her son, Todd Fisher; and a granddaughter, Billie Lourd.

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