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Fred Astaire was born Frederic Austerlitz Jr. in Omaha, Nebraska in 1899. He had a 2 1/2 years older sister, Adele, and they were a working class family, and when their mother saw their dancing talents at a very young age, she steered them into a sister/brother act, and they moved to New York in 1905, and started performing in vaudeville. By the early 1920s, they were regularly performing on Broadway and in London. In 1932, Adele married an English lord, and retired. Fred had been dancing with her for 27 years, but he paired with Claire Luce, and starred in the play Gay Divorce (which was later made into the movie The Gay Divorcee). This solo success got him a screen test at RKO (he had had one at Paramount with his sister in 1927, and they were not interested). Legend has it that the report on his screen test was "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little.", but this is likely one of those irresistible urban legends, especially because he was cast in a supporting role in Dancing Lady, where he dances with Joan Crawford. He followed with another supporting role, in Flying Down to Rio, where he was paired with Ginger Rogers, and they stole the movie from star Dolores Del Rio. He did not want to become part of a team again, but their movies were so successful that they indeed made eight more together by 1939, and re-teamed for one last movie in 1949. There was a huge difference between the Astaire/Rogers dancing and that of the Busby Berkeley Warner Bros musicals, in that there was next-to-no camera cutting, simply showing the great dancers perform in almost a single take! In 1939 he split with Rogers and also left RKO, and made a series of movies with several different partners, including the hugely successful Holiday Inn, with Bing Crosby. In 1946, he announced that he was retiring, but when Gene Kelly was injured, he stepped into the lead of Easter Parade, and that was the end of his retiring! He made several very memorable MGM musicals in the 1950s, including The Band Wagon. In 1957 he again retired from dancing in movies, taking only straight dramatic roles in movies like On The Beach, and The Towering Inferno (nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for this film), although he did do memorable TV specials with Barrie Chase in 1958 to 1960, and again in 1968. In 1980 he married Robyn Smith, a jockey who was 44 years younger than he was! He passed away in 1987, and since his passing (in 1987 at the age of 88) his widow has kept his films from being used commercially without major compensation, and even refused to allow clips to be shown at a tribute to Ginger Rogers, which is especially sad. Fred Astaire was an incomparable stage and movie dancer, and was a very charismatic actor as well. He had a career that spanned 76 years, all the more remarkable for someone who spent most of that time dancing! I highly recommend all of his movies!
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