Fred Astaire, born Frederick Austerlitz II in 1899, began show business at the age of four, performing on Broadway and in Vaudeville with his older sister, Adele. As a young adult, he headed to Hollywood where he began a successful partnership with Ginger Rogers for nine movies. He appeared in films with esteemed co-stars such as Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, Ann Miller, Debbie Reynolds, Judy Garland, and Cyd Charisse. He also co-starred with the biggest actors of that time, including Bing Crosby, Red Skelton, George Burns, and Gene Kelly. Fred Astaire was not only a great dancer – changing the face of the American movie musical with his style and grace – but he was also a singer, and an actor with many different dramatic and comedic credits, in both movies and TV specials. Fred Astaire also changed the way dance sequences in movies were filmed, insisting that the focus be kept on the full-frame dancers and the dance steps themselves, using a stationary camera shot – with long takes, wide shots & as few cuts as possible, allowing audiences to feel as though they were watching a dancer on stage, versus the then-popular technique of using a constantly roving camera with frequent cuts and close-ups.
Astaire received an honorary Academy Award in 1950 for his “unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures.” He holds choreography credits for ten of his movie musicals released between 1934-1961, including “Top Hat”, “Funny Face”, and “The Pleasure of His Company”. He won five Emmys for his work in television, including three for his variety shows, An Evening with Fred Astaire (1959, which won an unprecedented nine Emmys in all!) and Another Evening with Fred Astaire (1960).
In his later years, he continued to appear in movies, including “Finian’s Rainbow” (1968), and “The Towering Inferno” (1974) which earned him an Oscar nomination. He also starred in television roles on programs such as It Takes a Thief, and Battlestar Galactica (which he said he agreed to, due to the influence of his grandchildren). Astaire also lent his voice to several animated children’s TV specials, most notably, Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town (1970), and The Easter Bunny is Comin’ to Town (1977). Astaire received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981 from the American Film Institute, who in 2011, also named him the “Fifth Greatest Actor” (among their “The 50 Greatest Screen Legends” list).
Fred Astaire died in 1987 from pneumonia, at the age of 88. With his passing, the world lost a true dancing legend. His effortless lightness and grace may never be seen again. As Mikhail Baryshnikov observed at the time of Fred Astaire’s death, “No dancer can watch Fred Astaire and not know that we all should have been in another business.”
Fred Astaire’s Dance Partners
Although famous for his magical partnership with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire also danced with the leading ladies of his time, including Cyd Charisse, Lucille Bremer, Joan Leslie, Leslie Caron, Vera Ellen, Barrie Chase, Judy Garland, Eleanor Powell and Rita Hayworth. During his 35-year film career, he was truly the king of movie musicals!
“For ballroom dancing, remember that your partners have their own distinctive styles also. Cultivate flexibility. Be able to adapt your style to that of your partner. In doing so, you are not surrendering your individuality, but blending it with that of your partner.”
– Fred Astaire, from The Fred Astaire Top Hat Dance Album (1936)
Fred Astaire Films
During his career, Fred Astaire starred in 12 stage performances, 8 dramatic films, 16 television programs, and 33 musical films. He was most famous for his collaboration with Ginger Rogers in the following films:
- Flying Down To Rio (1933)
- The Gay Divorcee (1934)
- Roberta (1935)
- Top Hat (1935)
- Follow The Fleet (1936)
- Swing Time (1936)
- Shall We Dance (1937)
- Carefree (1938)
- The Story Of Vernon & Irene Castle (1939)
- The Barkleys Of Broadway (1949)
Songs Introduced By Fred Astaire
Fred Astaire introduced many songs by famous American composers that became classics, including:
- Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” from The Gay Divorcee (1932)
- Jerome Kern’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It” from A Damsel In Distress (1937) and “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” and “Never Gonna Dance” from Swing Time (1936)
- Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek” and “Isn’t This A Lovely Day” from Top Hat (1936) and “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” from Follow The Fleet (1936)
- Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day” from A Damsel In Distress (1937) and “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off,” “They All Laughed,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and “Shall We Dance” from Shall We Dance (1937)
Famous Artists, on Fred Astaire
Even among his peers, Fred Astaire stood alone. Click here to read quotes from famous dancers and actors on Fred Astaire, his skills, and the influence he had on them.