Fred Astaire was one of America’s most accomplished – and beloved – dancers and movie stars, whose work was immortalized in films like Top Hat with Ginger Rogers and Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn. Although he danced with many women, it was his partnership with Rogers that would ultimately secure his place at the top of the Hollywood echelon from the early 1930s until his retirement several decades later.
But Astaire was more than his generation’s most widely acclaimed dancer. Always up for new challenges, and a man who clearly loved to move, he took up skateboarding after he finally retired from dancing.
Astaire was awarded a Lifetime Membership to the National Skate Board Society of America — he brought name recognition to the sport which was not then the worldwide phenomenon it is today. He loved the sport so much and spent so much time on his skateboard that, at 78 years old, he finally fell and broke his wrist. That curtailed his skateboarding days, unfortunately. Take a closer look with this video:
A popular urban legend about Astaire persisted in Hollywood for years, that his first screen test, with RKO Pictures in the early 1930s, had a note attached that read: “Can’t sing. Can’t act. Balding. Can dance a little.”
Whether the story is actually true is unknown, but his first film producer at RKO Pictures, Pandros Berman, claimed he had never heard it until long after Astaire left Hollywood. Still, it’s a funny anecdote about a man who made many movies in which his talent and skills at dancing rocketed him to the rarefied top circles of American stardom.
Although Astaire is most famous for dancing with Ginger Rogers, his first foray into film had him dancing with another Hollywood legend – Joan Crawford, in 1933’s Dancing Lady. Shortly thereafter, however, he was partnered with Rogers and they made nine films together for RKO Pictures. In each one, they out-danced their previous film in one magical way or another.
A rumor about Astaire and Rogers was supposedly uttered by another screen legend, Katharine Hepburn, who is credited with saying, “he gives her class, and she gives him sex appeal.” Whether Hepburn actually said that is almost beside the point; the remark nicely captures the charm and magic these two dancing actors brought to the screen together.
For a man with such enormous talent, Astaire was, by all accounts, unusually modest, largely because he began his career as the second and younger half of a duet with his older sister Adele.
In the biography The Astaires by Kathleen Riley, reviewed in the New York Times, the author quotes sources in Hollywood such as film director Vincente Minnelli, who worked with Astaire on The Band Wagon. “He lacks confidence to the most enormous degree,” Minnelli said, “he always thinks he is no good.”
Indeed, Astaire considered himself almost a hindrance to Adele, as he notes in his own autobiography, Steps In Time. He declared he was little more than, “a small boy who went through the steps conscientiously, afraid he would forget his lines… I was a detriment to my sister,” he stated flatly.
While he may have considered himself second rate compared to his sister, Astaire was not above arguing that a second partnership, this time with Rogers, was something he did not want, at least at first.
A telegram to his agent Leland Howard, in 1934, read, “What’s all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it, Leland…I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.” (Adele had moved to Ireland to marry).
But Astaire was ultimately convinced, and the rest is cinematic history. For a huge Hollywood star who likely could have dated any woman in the world, Astair’s private life was surprisingly sedate, according to Biography. He and his first wife, Phyllis Baker Potter, a socialite, married in 1933 and remained together until her death in 1954.
His second marriage didn’t occur until 1980, when he wed jockey Robyn Smith, much to the surprise of friends and his two children. But they remained together until Astaire’s death in 1987, when a case of pneumonia took a lethal turn.
Of all the women with whom Astaire danced, there was one in particular who he thanked when making his acceptance speech in Hollywood for a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1981, at the age of 81 years.
“My sister Adele,” he began, “was mostly responsible for my being in show business. She was the whole show, she really was. In all the vaudeville acts we had and all the musical comedies we did together, Delly was that one, shining light, and I was just there, pushing away.”