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In her day, Debbie Reynolds did it all. Subsequently, her day lasted for decades.
The actress, who became a national treasure as the star of one of the most beloved movies of all time and went on to enjoy a nearly 70-year career in film, television and theater, has died. She was 84. Her son, Todd Fisher, confirmed the news to the Associated Press.
No cause was immediately announced. Reynolds had been hospitalized Wednesday afternoon after reportedly suffering a stroke at Todd’s home, barely a day after daughter Carrie Fisher died at the age of 60 following a heart attack.
Reynolds had commented on Fisher’s passing, thanking her and her daughter’s fans for their touching show of support, but the legendary entertainer had spent the last year out of the public eye, prompting concerns about her health.
She skipped the Governors’ Awards last November when she was honored with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for her philanthropic work and support of mental health causes. Granddaughter Billie Lourd, Fisher’s daughter, accepted the award in her honor.
“I’m heartbroken that I’m unable to be there in person to receive this extraordinary honor you have given me. So you could see how unbelievably happy you have made me,” Reynolds, who was recovering from surgery at the time, said in sending her regrets. “If joy could be weighed, this would be the most sizable rejoicing one could feel, especially if that one is me.”
Fisher had presented Reynolds with the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award months beforehand at the 2015 SAG Awards, daughter and mother trading light-hearted jabs at each other in a nod to their tight-knit yet famously rocky relationship.
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As an acknowledgment in her 2016 memoir The Princess Diarist, Fisher had written: “For my mother—for being too stubborn and thoughtful to die. I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny. Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.”
But the spotlight was on Reynolds for good reason. She was perhaps best known for singing and dancing her way into Gene Kelly‘s (and America’s) heart as the spunky and sweet-voiced Kathy Selden in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, one of the most famous movie musicals of all time and No. 5 on American Film Institute’s list of the best films ever made.
“It’s generational,” Reynolds discussed her best-known movie in an interview with AFI. “I think it really relates to young people. They like it because it has life and the story is so simple. It’s boy-meets-girl, but it’s movie star meets beginner. Actually, the character was a lot like me, Debbie. At the time I was 17, this was a young girl who was wanting to be a dancer, wanting to be in show business.”
Born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, Reynold’s family moved to California when she was 7, and the petite star was discovered at 16 when she won the Miss Burbank pageant in 1948. That led to a studio contract, she changed her name to Debbie and Singin’ in the Rain was her fourth credited role—and the first in which she played the leading lady (aka the object of the leading man’s affection, as it often was in those days).
While shooting the film with Kelly, she was being tutored by the era’s other dancing superstar, Fred Astaire, who was working on the stage next door.
“I was just lucky that they put me in that part that suited me,” Reynolds recalled. “In other words I didn’t have to be a well-trained actress, which I certainly…when I was 17, I was brand new in the movies, so I certainly had no training. But if the part is you, and you’re not afraid—and I wasn’t afraid—you know, I was so dumb that I didn’t feel you could fail. I felt it was me and I really just marched straight ahead and I wasn’t frightened of the huge task. I had never danced!”
You could watch her perfectly polished scenes with Kelly and Donald O’Connor a million times and never think for one second that Reynolds hadn’t been dancing all her life. She was certainly known as a triple threat ever after.
Her cheerful self-deprecation was a hallmark of her personality that extended even into her personal life. A few years ago she humorously compared herself to Jennifer Aniston when she recalled being the odd woman out when her first husband, Eddie Fisher, left her to marry the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor in 1959.
But years after the fact, Reynolds didn’t hold back when asked about the subject, her candor about love, loss and self-scrutiny resembling the type of no-holds-barred straight talk daughter Carrie became famous for as well.
“I was the last to find out about the affair,” Reynolds told the Daily Mail in 2010. “There had been hints in the papers and I had noticed that when I turned up at functions or parties on my own my friends were whispering.
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“Although I didn’t want to find out the truth, I had to face up to it. Even so, it was a great shock to find them together. It left me shattered.”
Moreover, “I was a virgin when I married Eddie, but Elizabeth had been married three times…I was very religious so I didn’t believe in divorce, but they laid guilt on me that I was keeping them and true love apart. So, I finally let Eddie off the hook. I told him to go.”
Taylor would soon divorce Fisher when she met Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra, and she and Reynolds rekindled their friendship not long afterward.
Reynolds married two more times, to Harry Karl and Richard Hamlett, and she called all three of her marriages “dreadful.”
What she did take pride in was her decades-long career, which after Singin’ in the Rain led to starring roles in The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, The Tender Trap, Tammy and the Bachelor, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she received her sole Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and Divorce American Style.
She started performing in Las Vegas in 1960—and along with Shirley MacLaine became one of the few honorary female members of the Rat Pack.
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“I loved to party with the Rat Pack, they were so much fun,” she told the U.K.’s Telegraph in 2010 while on a 15-stop concert tour of England at the age of 77. “All they did was have a good time. We’d get off work at two in the morning and hang out at a club and listen to other performers. I loved Frank Sinatra. If he liked you it was forever, and if he disliked you—I wouldn’t want to be there.”
She recalled Sinatra telling her not to marry a singer, as she was engaged to Fisher at the time. “But Eddie was a darling boy and at the time I loved him very much,” Reynolds said. “Of course Frank was right.”
But though Reynolds would readily admit down the road to having been unlucky in love, she took pride in the fact that she’d more or less been working nonstop for her entire adult life.
She had her own sitcom, The Debbie Reynolds Show, in which she played a housewife who wanted to be a newspaper reporter and was always trying to scheme her way to a scoop in I Love Lucy-esque fashion, but she walked away from it after only one season—because she didn’t like that they were selling ad time to cigarette makers, knowing firsthand how addictive they were and how hard it was to quit.
Reynolds remained a frequent presence on TV, however, appearing on The Love Boat, The Golden Girls, Perry Mason: The Case of the Musical Murder, Hotel and more.
She was nominated for a Tony Award as the star of the 1973 Broadway revival of Irene. In 1976 she headlined the musical revue Debbie and later followed Lauren Bacall as Tess Harding in the 1981 musical adaptation of the classic Hepburn-Tracy comedy Woman of the Year.
Reynolds also became known as a bit of a caricature thanks to Fisher’s semi-autobiographical novels, such as Postcards From the Edge—which was turned into a film starring MacLaine and Meryl Streep as heavy-drinking mother-daughter actresses with a stormy relationship.
“There’s a line in Postcards from the Edge where Meryl Streep says to my mother, ‘We’re designed more for public than for private,'” Fisher told Vanity Fair in 2009 after the release of her memoir Wishful Drinking, which she also adapted into a one-woman show on Broadway. “I’ve finally turned into my mother.”
And just last month, in an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Fisher called her mother “an immensely powerful woman.”
“There’s very few women from her generation who worked like that, who just kept a career going all her life, and raised children, and had horrible relationships, and lost all her money, and got it back again.”
Reynolds’ film career received a late boost when she starred as Albert Brooks‘ doting yet unwittingly manipulative mom in the 1996 film Mother, which earned Reynolds a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a comedy or musical.
“The most amazing thing about Debbie was the way she approached this role, like a method actress,” Brooks told Psychology Today. “And she did something that I requested; she stopped all of her live performing about two months before the movie. I just wanted to clean out that Vegas person. Her own daughter was like, ‘Where did this come from?’ Because nothing in her career suggests this performance. She was never asked to do the real moments, you know? The musicals were always at a certain level.”
In 1997, Reynolds was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
And without a doubt, the actress who was such a famous mother in real life had found her niche playing Mom onscreen.
Reynolds stood out as Kevin Kline‘s startled yet understanding mother in the hit big-screen comedy In & Out, and she earned an Emmy nomination in 2000 for best guest actress in a comedy series for her turn as Debra Messing‘s scene-chewing mom in Will & Grace.
In 2010 Reynolds did a 15-city concert tour of England, crediting her good genes for her impressive stamina at 77.
Also in 2013, Reynolds released her memoir Unsinkable, the title a nod to one of her most famous roles.
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In November 2014, 54 years after making her performance debut in Las Vegas at the Riviera Hotel, Reynolds bid Sin City farewell with a weekend engagement at the South Point Casino. Daughter Carrie, son Todd and granddaughter Billie joined her on stage and Reynolds closed the vaudeville-inspired show singing “Tammy,” a No. 1 hit for her in 1957.
Asked in January 2015 if she planned on slowing down for good after having “no vacation ever in 66 years,” she assured it was just a “hiatus.”
“I’ll never retire,” Reynolds told The Hollywood Reporter. “I’ll always perform. It’s the ham in me—I love to sing and dance. I watch Turner Classic Movies every night—what would I do without TCM?”
And what would TCM have done without stars such as Debbie Reynolds, the likes of whom belong to a forever-golden age.