Debbie Reynolds, ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ Actress, Dies at 84

  • Performer was the movie-star mother of Carrie Fisher
  • Showing ‘unharnessed enthusiasm,’ her career began at age 16

Debbie Reynolds, the Texan-born actress and singer who rose to stardom in the 1952 movie “Singin’ in the Rain” and earned an Oscar nomination for her role as a heroine who survived the sinking of the Titanic, has died. She was 84.

Reynolds died on Dec. 28 after being taken to a hospital from her son’s home in Beverly Hills after complaining of breathing problems, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing a law enforcement source. Her daughter, actress and author Carrie Fisher, died the previous day in Los Angeles following a heart attack.

Debbie Reynolds

Photographer: Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

Paired with dancer Gene Kelly and comic Donald O’Connor, the 19-year-old Reynolds won acclaim as the chorus girl and singer Kathy Selden in the musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” best remembered for Kelly’s performance of the title song. It ranked fifth in the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest American movies of all time when the list was last compiled in 2007.

“Debbie was strong as an ox,” Kelly said, according to the Turner Classic Movies website. “Also she was a great copyist, and she could pick up the most complicated routine without too much difficulty.”

Barely 5 feet 2 inches tall, she appeared in more than 30 films during the 1950s and 1960s, receiving an Academy Award nomination for “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964), about an uneducated rural girl in search of a rich husband. Loosely based on the life of American socialite Margaret Brown, the movie starred Reynolds whose musical numbers included “I Ain’t Down Yet” and “I’ll Never Say No” as it chronicled Brown’s real-life efforts to save survivors of the 1912 Titanic shipwreck.

‘Unharnessed Enthusiasm’

“Her role gives her opportunities to be refreshingly tomboyish such as she has never had before,” A.H. Weiler said of Reynolds in a New York Times review in 1964. “Since her role, as well as the others, is more grotesque than life, her unharnessed enthusiasm is a delight.”

Reynolds’s other films included “The Tender Trap” (1955), with Frank Sinatra; “The Catered Affair” (1956), with Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine; “Tammy and the Bachelor” (1957), with Leslie Nielsen; and “How the West Was Won” (1962), starring James Stewart and John Wayne. Burdened by the debts of her second spouse, Harry Karl, she also worked in live theater to earn money, gaining a Tony Award nomination in 1973 for her performance in the Broadway musical “Irene.”

Daughter’s Travails

Her daughter, best known for her role as Princess Leia in the original “Star Wars” movies, outlined her struggle with drug addiction and bipolar disorder as well as the once-rocky relationship with her mother in books including “Wishful Drinking,” which was also a one-woman stage show.

“I love being her daughter,” Fisher said in a 2010 interview with the New York Times. “Debbie Reynolds is great.”

Debbie Reynolds and daughter Carrie Fisher in 2015.

Photographer: Charley Gallay/WireImage via Getty Images

Mary Frances Reynolds was born April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas, to Raymond Reynolds and the former Maxene Harmon. “Frannie,” as she was known, had an older brother, Bill. The family lived in poverty in the Great Depression.

In 1940, the family moved to Burbank, California, where Reynolds excelled as a Girl Scout and musician, playing the French horn and bass violin for the Burbank Youth Symphony. She was also an athlete and had ambitions to teach gymnastics.

In 1948, Reynolds entered the Miss Burbank beauty pageant and won the title as well as the attention of Warner Bros. talent scouts. At age 16, she was offered a contract for $65 a week and her name was changed to Debbie.

‘Free Blouse’

“I’m just here ’cause I won this contest, and I got a free blouse and scarf,” Reynolds said of her Warner Bros. screen test, according to a 2013 interview with CBS News. “That’s the only reason I’m here. I don’t know what you guys are doing wasting your time on me.”

Later switching to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, she had singing roles in “Three Little Words” and “Two Weeks With Love,” in which she performed the hit “Aba Daba Honeymoon.” She was then cast in “Singin’ in the Rain” without previous dance experience and had to learn in rehearsals how to hold her own with her accomplished co-stars.

“I was dancing for eight hours a day,” she wrote in “Unsinkable,” her 2013 memoir, written with Dorian Hannaway. “Making ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ and childbirth were the two hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Reynolds and Eddie Fisher.

Photographer: Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives via Getty Images

Reynolds lamented an unhappy love life, having had three marriages that ended in divorce and two husbands who had debts that drained her wealth. Reynolds’s first husband, singer Eddie Fisher, left her for her actress friend Elizabeth Taylor.

“I was like Jennifer Aniston with Brad Pitt when he fell in love with Angelina Jolie,” she said in a 2013 interview with the New York Daily News. “If Angelina wants someone, then that is that. Certain women have that power.”

From 1984 to 1996, Reynolds was married to Richard Hamlett, a real-estate developer who married her for her money, she said in her memoir.

In 1993, she opened the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas and struggled to finance the renovation before filing for bankruptcy protection in 1997. The property was later sold to the World Wrestling Federation. In later years, Reynolds tried to dig herself out of debt by auctioning off her extensive collection of Hollywood memorabilia, including thousands of costumes and photos.

Reynolds had two children, Carrie and Todd, from her four-year marriage to Fisher during the 1950s.

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