Debbie Reynolds, Spirited Star of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ Dies at 84
Debbie Reynolds, the vivacious actress, dancer and pop star who wowed ’em in the musicals Singin’ in the Rain and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, died Wednesday, just one day after her daughter, Carrie Fisher, passed away, The Hollywood Reporter has confirmed. She was 84.
“She’s with Carrie,” Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, told THR’s Ryan Parker. He told the Associated Press that the stress of his sister’s death was “too much” for his mother. Joely Fisher later tweeted, “Some of the magic people have left the tribe…for the moment I am inconsolable.”
Reynolds died Wednesday night after being hospitalized for a medical emergency. On Tuesday, her daughter, the Star Wars actress, author and screenwriter, died of complications from a heart attack she had suffered four days earlier while on a flight from London to Los Angeles.
Years earlier, Reynolds suffered heartbreak of another kind when her husband and Carrie’s father, pop singer Eddie Fisher, left her to be with actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Reynolds was given the prestigious Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 2015 by the Academy for her charitiable life work. She also had a No. 1 single with the sentimental ballad “Tammy,” toplined her own NBC sitcom for a season and was an energetic touring performer on stages and in showrooms for decades.
Reynolds became a sensation after starring with legendary hoofers Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the immortal MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952), directed by Kelly and Stanley Donen. With the stars portraying performers caught up in the transition from silent films to talkies, the movie was voted the No. 1 musical of all time by the American Film Institute.
Reynolds received her only Oscar nomination for playing the title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), based on the Broadway musical and fictionalized account of the life of a woman who survived the sinking of the Titanic. But Reynolds lost out to Julie Andrews in her debut film, Mary Poppins.
In between those two films, Reynolds was very much a headliner on the Hollywood gossip pages when her husband fell in love with Taylor following the death of Taylor’s husband, Around the World in 80 Days producer Michael Todd, in a March 1958 plane crash. Fisher was Todd’s best man when he married Taylor, and Reynolds had been a bridesmaid.
In 2010, Reynolds recalled how she found out her husband was cheating on her — lonely at home while Fisher was away on tour, she called Taylor at home to chat. To her surprise, Fisher answered the phone.
“Suddenly, a lot of things clicked into place,” she told the Daily Mail of London. “I could hear her voice asking him who was calling — they were obviously in bed together. I yelled at him, ‘Roll over darling, and let me speak to Elizabeth.’ ”
In her 2008 autobiography Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher described her parents’ breakup, which started when her dad “flew to Elizabeth’s side, making his way slowly to her front.
“He first dried her eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis,” Fisher wrote. “This made marriage to my mother awkward.”
The Reynolds-Fisher divorce became final on May 12, 1959 — Carrie was 2 at the time — and Taylor and Fisher were wed less than four hours later. Taylor would go on to divorce Fisher in 1964 after she fell for Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra (1963).
Reynolds did not talk to Taylor for seven years until she boarded the Queen Elizabeth with her second husband, shoe manufacturer Harry Karl, and discovered that Taylor also was on the ship. Reynolds sent her a note, and the two had dinner and “a lot of laughs.”
She divorced Karl in 1973. Reynolds also was married from 1984-96 to real estate developer Richard Hamlett.
In January 2015, she was the recipient of the Life Achievement Award at the SAG Awards. “In [Molly Brown] I got to sing a wonderful song called, ‘I Ain’t Down Yet.’ … Well, I ain’t.”
Reynolds recently was saddled with health problems and was unable to attend the Governors Awards in November 2015 later to accept her Hersholdt award on stage.
Mary Frances Reynolds was born April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas. At age 7, her family moved to Burbank, and at age 16, the 5-foot-2 former Girl Scout was signed to a contract at Warner Bros.
After appearing in bit roles in such films as June Bride (1948) and The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950), Reynolds attracted the attention of MGM. The studio gave the fresh-faced teenager a small but significant part as singer Helen Kane (“I Wanna Be Loved by You”) in the Fred Astaire starrer Three Little Words (1950), then signed her to a seven-year contract.
In her next film, Two Weeks With Love (1950), Reynolds scored a hit song with a remake of “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” a duet with Carleton Carpenter that made it to No. 3 on the Billboard pop chart.
After the success of Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds spent the rest of a busy decade starring as good-natured girls in such musicals and light-hearted comedies as The Affairs of Dobie Gillis (1953) opposite Bobby Van; Donen’s Give a Girl a Break (1953); Susan Slept Here (1954) with Dick Powell; Athena (1954) and Hit the Deck (1955), both alongside Jane Powell; The Tender Trap (1955) with Frank Sinatra; Bundle of Joy (1956), with Fisher at the height of their relationship; The Catered Affair (1956), as the daughter of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine; Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), playing a backwoods innocent opposite Leslie Nielsen; and The Gazebo and It Started With a Kiss, two 1959 films in which she was coupled with Glenn Ford.
In the 1960s, Reynolds made notable appearances in the epic How the West Was Won (1962), My Six Loves (1963) opposite Cliff Robertson, The Singing Nun (1966) and Divorce American Style with Dick Van Dyke.
The actress embarked on The Debbie Reynolds Show for the start of the 1969-70 TV season but quit the sitcom after getting into a fight with NBC over cigarette commercials. She surrendered her 50 percent interest in the show and later called the move the “stupidest mistake of my entire career.”
The series, produced by I Love Lucy’s Jess Oppenheimer, had Reynolds playing the wife of a sportswriter (Don Chastain). It lasted 26 episodes.
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In 1981, she welcomed visitors to Hawaii for the short-lived ABC series Aloha Paradise. Her other TV appearances included episodes of Madame’s Place, Alice, The Love Boat, Hotel, The Golden Girls, Wings, Roseanne, Rugrats and Will & Grace (as Debra Messing’s entertainer mother).
In 1996, Reynolds received a Golden Globe nomination for playing Albert Brooks’ mom in Mother (1996). In 2013, she appeared as another mother, that of Liberace (Michael Douglas), in Steven Soderbergh’s HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra.
Her recording of “Tammy” spent five weeks at No. 1 in 1957 and was nominated for an Academy Award for best original song (Reynolds performed it during the 1958 Oscar ceremony.) The tune gave Reynolds the distinction of being the only woman to have a No. 1 record in the span between July 28, 1956, and Dec. 1, 1958.
Reynolds also scored top 25 Billboard hits with “A Very Special Love” in 1958 and “Am I That Easy to Forget” in 1960.
On stage, Reynolds earned a Tony Award nomination for the 1973 revival of Irene and in the early 1980s replaced Lauren Bacall as the lead in the musical version of Woman of the Year. In 1989, she began a national tour with a production of The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Through the years, she was a constant presence in Las Vegas.
Reynolds amassed a huge collection of movie memorabilia during her career and auctioned off some of it in June 2011. Items included the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore over a subway grate in 1955’s The Seven Year Itch (the winning bid was $4.6 million); a pair of Judy Garland’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz (1939); a Harpo Marx hat and wig; and costumes from Ben-Hur (1959) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962).
“I still have a lot of my things, but I decided to become rich,” she said at the time.
She put more items — like a hat that Vivien Leigh donned in Gone With the Wind (1939) and Gregory Peck’s military jacket from MacArthur (1977) — up for sale in May 2014.
Survivors include her son Todd, also from her marriage to Eddie Fisher, and her granddaughter Billie Lourd.