Debbie Reynolds, the indefatigable star of Singin’ in the Rain, who bounced back time and again on the strength of a career that spanned the golden age of the Hollywood musical to the new golden age of TV, died on Dec. 28 at the age of 84 in Los Angeles. Her death came just one day after she endured the cruelest blow possible, when her daughter, Star Wars actress and writer Carrie Fisher, died on Dec. 27 at age 60, following a heart attack.
“She’s now with Carrie and we’re all heartbroken,” her son, Todd Fisher, told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
A onetime Oscar nominee, Reynolds appeared in more than 50 movies. She is best remembered for playing alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. The joyful film is typically cited as the greatest movie musical of all-time. Other big-screen credits included The Unsinkable Molly Brown and How the West Was Won. She played the title role in the Albert Brooks comedy Mother and was unrecognizable as Liberace’s mother in the acclaimed HBO biopic Behind the Candelabra. She once knocked Elvis Presley from the top of the charts, earned Tony and Emmy nods, won a lifetime achievement award from the Screen Actors Guild, as well as an honorary Academy Award.
Reynolds’ best role might have been that of survivor. “I’ll keep singing and dancing until I’m too old to stand up,” she said.
Born April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas, Reynolds’ family moved West when she was young, and she grew up in the shadow of the movie studios in Burbank, Calif. At 16, she won the title of “Miss Burbank” and was subsequently offered a contract by Warner Bros. Studios. Jack Warner, one of the founding executives there, had one stipulation for the girl then known as Mary Frances Reynolds.
“He hated the name Mary, the name Frances, and the name Reynolds,” Reynolds remembered. “He wanted to change the name to Debbie Morgan because Dennis Morgan was a big star then. … So I said, ‘You kept Warner, I’m not changing Reynolds.’”
The rechristened Reynolds had appeared in supporting roles in a handful of musicals when she was cast as the female lead in Singin’ in the Rain. (Coincidentally, she was the same age, 19, as daughter Carrie would be when she was cast in George Lucas’ blockbuster space saga.) Reynolds worked hard at her big break.
“I was practicing and rehearsing all the time, my feet were bleeding,” she recalled. “I was trying, but it was so much to learn.”
In the end, Reynolds looked to have no trouble keeping up alongside Kelly, a dance legend, and O’Connor, a veteran hoofer. She became a star and went on to big roles in movies with Frank Sinatra (The Tender Trap) and Bette Davis (The Catered Affair). Her 1957 romantic comedy Tammy and the Bachelor spawned the No. 1 pop hit, “Tammy.”
In 1954, at age 22, she became engaged to the singer Eddie Fisher. The two wed a year later, co-starred in the musical comedy Bundle of Joy, and started a family. Carrie Fisher was born in 1956; son Todd Fisher, a producer and director, was born in 1958. The couple’s union was often described as “perfect,” though neither Eddie Fisher nor Reynolds would later refer to it that way.
A month after their younger child was born, producer Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher’s good friend and Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, was killed in a plane crash. By that summer, Fisher and Taylor were spied nightclubbing together. The affair made headlines, and within months Reynolds filed for divorce, citing the damage done by “another woman.”
“In the old days, if Elizabeth saw a man she wanted, she got him no matter who she stepped over,” Reynolds said. “She admits that.”
While the scandal forever estranged Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, who died in 2010, she and Taylor — who would dump the singer for Richard Burton during the making of Cleopatra — later rekindled their friendship.
“The whole world blamed Elizabeth, but I didn’t,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds and Taylor acted out a fictionalized version of their relationship in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads, written by Carrie Fisher.
“She laughs a lot about why in the world she wanted Eddie,” Reynolds told the Associated Press.
Post-divorce, Reynolds cranked out movie after movie, including the 1962 epic How the West Was Won, and married tycoon Harry Karl, namesake of the onetime retail giant Karl’s Shoe Stores. In 1964, she starred in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. The crowd-pleasing musical about a survivor of the Titanic disaster earned Reynolds her lone career Best Actress Oscar nomination and provided a fitting persona for her off screen.
When Reynolds and Karl divorced in 1973, Reynolds said she found out Karl had gambled away her fortune and left her $2 million in debt.
“Sure, I considered killing myself,” Reynolds said. “But I didn’t do it because of the children.”
Reynolds steeled herself to pay back the money. “I had to sell off all my jewelry, and the houses and the cars all went to the banks,” she remembered. “There was nothing left.”
With her film career having waned and her self-titled TV sitcom having ended after just one season, Reynolds hit the road as a singer and dancer and established herself as a Las Vegas draw. She took on Broadway too. Her 1973 turn in the musical Irene earned her a Tony nomination.
When Star Wars exploded in 1977, Reynolds found herself cast in a new role. “After all those years of her being Debbie Reynolds’ daughter,” Reynolds said, “I’m quite happy to be Princess Leia’s mother.”
In 1979, Reynolds opened the Debbie Reynolds Studio, a still-thriving facility for dancers and an oft-used rehearsal space for stars. In 1992, she bought the former Paddlewheel Hotel Casino located just off the Las Vegas Strip and renamed it the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel. The venue featured Reynolds as the headlining act and a movie memorabilia museum featuring its star’s own collection.
Reynolds began seriously collecting old Hollywood in 1970 when new Hollywood was busy trashing its history. The former MGM contract player was among the stars who attended an auction of MGM props and costumes. While her ultimate goal to establish a Hollywood museum went unfulfilled, she managed to preserve key bits of history from films such as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, and Citizen Kane. She sold her collection via a series of auctions between 2011 and 2014, grossing nearly $30 million.
Reynolds battled more financial adversity when her hotel and casino failed in the late 1990s, and her third marriage, to developer Richard Hamlett, went down with the business. Reynolds later said Hamlett confessed he’d married her for her money, which she said he’d mismanaged.
“All of my husbands robbed me blind,” Reynolds would tell the AP. “The only one who didn’t take money was Eddie Fisher. He just never paid anything for the children.”
After going 0 for 3, Reynolds swore off marriage. “I have no taste in men,” she said.
In typical Reynolds fashion, a 1997 bankruptcy filing was offset by a Hollywood resurgence. At the recommendation of Carrie Fisher, writer-director-actor Albert Brooks interviewed and ultimately cast Reynolds in his 1996 comedy Mother. It was Reynolds’ first notable big-screen work since providing the voice of Charlotte in the 1973 animated film Charlotte’s Web. She generated Oscar buzz and was off and running again, with a role in Kevin Kline’s In & Out and recurring work on the sitcom Will & Grace, as Debra Messing’s mother, and the animated series Rugrats, as the voice of Lulu Johnston. The Will & Grace gig earned her a 2000 Primetime Emmy nomination.
In 2013, she inhabited Frances Liberace, the mother of the piano showman, in Behind the Candelabra. Reynolds knew the subject matter well — she’d been a real-life friend of Liberace, played in the movie by Michael Douglas.
Reynolds was credited with championing and raising millions for mental health treatment, work that later brought her the Jean Hersholt Academy Award honor. In January 2015, Reynolds was feted at the SAG Awards for lifetime achievement. Carrie Fisher did the presenting honors. (Fisher often celebrated her mother in her own work, though Reynolds maintained that the boozy, show-biz matriarch from Fisher’s novel-turned-movie Postcards From the Edge was a fictionalized character.)
“She has been more than a mother to me — not much, but definitely more,” Fisher joked at the SAG Awards. “She’s been an unsolicited stylist, interior decorator, and marriage counselor. Admittedly, I found it difficult to share my mother with her adoring fans, who treated her like she was part of their family.”