Frederick Austerlitz, Jr., also known as Fred Astaire, was an American dancer of stage and motion pictures who was best known for a number of highly successful musical comedy films in which he starred with Ginger Rogers. He is regarded by many as a pioneer in the serious presentation of dance on film and the greatest popular-music dancer of all time. Astaire entered show business at age 5. He was successful both in vaudeville and on Broadway in partnership with his sister, Adele. After Adele retired to marry in 1932, Astaire headed to Hollywood and made a screen test, receiving an discouraging verdict from executives: “Can’t act, can’t sing. Balding. Can dance a little.” Signed to RKO, he was loaned to MGM to appear in Dancing Lady (1933) before starting work on RKO's Flying Down to Rio (1933) with Ginger Rogers. The two were a sensation, stealing the picture from stars Delores del Rio and Gene Raymond. Public demand compelled RKO to feature the pair in a classic series of starring vehicles throughout the 1930s, with The Gay Divorcee (1934), Top Hat (1935), and Swing Time (1936) often cited as the best of the lot. Although Astaire worked well with several leading ladies throughout his career, including Eleanor Powell, Rita Hayworth (whom Astaire cited as his favorite on-screen partner) and Lucille Bremer, his partnership with Rogers had a special chemistry.
Astaire retired temporarily in 1946, during which he opened Fred Astaire Dance Studios, but returned to the screen in 1948 and appeared in a series of Technicolor musicals for MGM that, next to his films with Rogers, constitute his most highly regarded body of work. Several of Astaire’s most-famous dance routines appear in these films, such as the slow-motion dance in Easter Parade (1948), which also featured Judy Garland; the dance with empty shoes in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), which was his 10th and final film with Rogers; the ceiling dance and the duet with a hat rack in Royal Wedding (1951); and the dance on air in The Belle of New York (1952). The best of Astaire’s films during this period was The Band Wagon (1953), often cited as one of the greatest of film musicals; it featured Astaire’s memorable duet with Cyd Charisse to the song “Dancing in the Dark.”
Astaire’s run of classic MGM musicals ended with Silk Stockings (1957), after which his screen appearances were mostly in non-dancing character roles. He continued to dance with new partner Barrie Chase for several Emmy Award-winning television specials throughout the 1950s and ’60s, and he danced again on-screen in Finian’s Rainbow (1968) and for a few steps with Gene Kelly in That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976). He subsequently performed a number of straight dramatic roles in film and TV, most notably in On the Beach (1959); The Pleasure of His Company (1962); The Towering Inferno (1974), for which he received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor; and Ghost Story (1981), his final film.
Astaire was awarded an honorary Academy Award for his contributions to film in 1950, and he received a Life Achievement Award from the American Film Institute in 1981. He revolutionized the movie musical by simplifying it: Solo dancers or couples were shot in full-figure, and dances were filmed with a minimum of edits and camera angles. He was also noted for his quintessentially American vocal style; although possessing a rather thin-toned tenor voice, Astaire received much praise from jazz critics for his innate sense of swing and his conversational way with a song. His best vocal recordings were those he undertook in the early 1950s with jazz combos led by pianist Oscar Peterson.
Fred Astaire passed away from pneumonia on June 22, 1987, in Los Angeles, CA, at the age of 88.