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Who is Fred Astaire?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Fred Astaire (1899-1987) was a dancer and performer, best remembered for his musical performances with Ginger Rogers during the 1930s. However, he was in a dazzling amount of films and plays, contributing a huge body of work to cinema history. Astaire was a superb dancer and choreographer, as well as a perfectionist, constantly questing for improved dance moves and films with a focus on beautiful, showy performance. He also appeared in numerous television specials in his later years and was honored by the Academy in 1950 for his significant contribution to Hollywood history.

Fred Astaire was the son of Austrian immigrants to New York City, and he spent his childhood going to dancing school with his older sister Adele, who was a talented dancer herself. The two performed on various stages in childhood, adopting the name Astaire during the First World War and making it a household word along the Eastern Seaboard. The Astaires danced in numerous Broadway productions together until 1932, when Adele retired.

His strong grounding in Broadway productions gave Fred Astaire an excellent sense of staging, timing, and dance moves, which translated well to film when he struck out for Hollywood in 1932. Astaire felt that he had been locked out of romantic roles on Broadway because of his frequent performances with his sister, and he was interested in expanding his career. He signed a contract with Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) pictures. In 1933, he was cast with Ginger Rogers in Flying Down to Rio, the first film in a partnership that would total ten high grossing and famous musical films.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers had a magic that worked well on screen, and the two captivated American audiences during the Depression years of the 1930s. Astaire's tap and ballroom acts with Rogers represented hours of painstaking work, as he developed routines to showcase their abilities and was very demanding on set, often requesting multiple retakes of a scene until he was satisfied. In 1939, the pair felt that the market for their films was exhausted and went their separate ways.

Fred Astaire continued to dance on film until 1970, when he felt that he was no longer physically capable of performing difficult dance moves. He also played a number of straight roles, including Biddeford Poole in The Pleasure of His Company (1961). In addition, he opened a chain of Dance Studios across the United States, many of which are still in existence today teaching his dancing techniques.

During his lifetime, Fred Astaire had two wives. He was married to Phyllis Potter from 1933 until 1955, when she died of cancer, and to well known former jockey Robyn Smith from 1980 until his death. Astaire had two children with Phyllis, Fred Junior and Ava. He is remembered as a kind family man, who adored his children and loathed his trademark top hat and tails, vastly preferring casual dress. Fred Astaire was a vital force in American musicals, and his influence continues to be felt today in the field of musical choreography.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a PublicPeople researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cmsmith10 — On Oct 25, 2010

I find it amazing that Fred Astaire never got any more awards than what he did. According to the IMDB, the only Academy Award he ever received was just an honorary. It was given “For his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures.”

Fred Astaire also played the accordion. At the AFI Life Achievement Award Ceremony in 1981, it was said of Fred: “Dancers hate Fred Astaire. He gives us complexes because he is too perfect.” That statement was made by Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Fred stated that after his first screen test, this was said of him: “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Also dances.”

By BoatHugger — On Oct 25, 2010

A few years ago, I found a book while pilfering through a thrift store. It was a Fred Astaire bio. It had a lot of great information that I had never heard before.

Fred Astaire was actually born as “Frederick Austerlitz II”. He was born on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Nebraska. He started his professional dancing career in 1905 dancing with his sister in Vaudeville. He had originally taken dance lessons at the same time as his sister to save the price of a babysitter.

Fred appeared at least twice in the “Zippy” comic strip. He was a horse racing enthusiast. Perhaps that is what attracted him to his second wife, Robyn Smith. Robyn was a former jockey.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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