From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on January 23, 2015.
Where to begin with the unstoppable force that is Debbie Reynolds? She’s appeared in over 50 movies, had a chart-topping song (sandwiched between hits by Elvis Presley and Paul Anka), and is an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony award nominee. The woman has had an interesting life: she grew up poor, lived her early adult years and first marriage in the pages of the tabloids, had two more bad marriages after that, and saw the demise of the studio system that started her career. She starred in classic films in the golden age of Hollywood, holding her own against major league co-stars like Gene Kelly, Jimmy Stewart, Gregory Peck, and Frank Sinatra.
This Sunday, she’ll receive the SAG Lifetime Achievement Award, given annually to an actor who fosters the “finest ideals of the acting profession.” Her award will be presented by her daughter, novelist/screenwriter/memoirist Carrie Fisher, whose relationship with her mother has given her boatloads of material for her writing. The two women live across the street from each other, remaining close despite the ups and downs of spending their lives in the spotlight.
And the spotlight’s still on: here are seven fun facts about this amazing, undauntable star.
HER SQUEAKY-CLEAN 'GIRL SCOUT' IMAGE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY ACCURATE
Debbie Reynolds was raised to be a good girl, and it’s because of this that she says, with regret, she never had a particularly passionate sex life. She was a virgin when she married Eddie Fisher, and ultimately lost him to the sultry, sexy Elizabeth Taylor in a headline-grabbing break-up.
As for being like a Girl Scout, she actually was one, and she’s proud of it. She was a Campfire Girl and a troop leader who earned no less than 47 merit badges, and there’s a Girl Scout scholarship in her name. Her scouting came in handy the day she met her Singin’ In The Rain co-star, Gene Kelly. He was introduced to his leading lady, unaware that she had no real dance experience. He asked her if she could do a time-step, and she happily replied, “Yes, I learned it at Girl Scout camp!”
SHE GOT HER START IN A BEAUTY CONTEST
At age 16, Reynolds entered the Miss Burbank beauty contest, mostly because of the exciting prizes: a silk scarf, a blouse, and a free lunch. She won the contest, and was asked to do a screen test for Warner Brothers the next day.
FRED ASTAIRE GAVE HER THE COURAGE TO DANCE. PERSONALLY.
When shooting began for Singin’ In The Rain, she was just an amateur. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were virtual acrobats, and the movie demanded that she keep up. At 19, she was overwhelmed, and used to crawl under the piano to cry when things got tough. One day a pair of legs walked past, then stopped and a voice asked who was under there. The legs belonged to Fred Astaire, and when she told him her troubles, he broke his normally unwavering rule, and let her watch him rehearse. He wanted to show her just how challenging it was for him, too, to get the right moves. He then sent her back to the set to learn her routines, without the tears and without giving up.
She certainly learned how to tough it out: shooting the musical number “Good Morning” took 14 brutal hours. Watch to see why it was worth it:
HER BROTHER WAS IN SHOW BUSINESS TOO
Debbie Reynolds’ brother William was a makeup artist who worked on shows like The Waltons and Eight Is Enough, and before that, for Elvis Presley. Apparently Elvis used to play all kinds of tricks on him, putting popcorn in his pants or worse, snakes.
During an interview with Alec Baldwin for his NPR show Here’s The Thing, Debbie learned that her brother had been Baldwin’s makeup artist for a year and a half on Knot’s Landing. Baldwin says it was “Billy” who helped him survive the experience: he always reminded Baldwin to bring a book with him, since he knew it would be hours before the show’s notorious divas, Joan Collins among them, would leave the makeup chair free.
SHE’S A MEMORABILIA MAVEN
Reynolds started buying up classic movie props and costumes in 1970. She created one of the greatest personal collections ever assembled, a combination of items she purchased and gifts from her famous friends. Rat Packer Joey Bishop joked that she was a “nutcake” for wanting his old pants, but the five Rat Pack tuxes together were valued at $30,000 - $50,000 last year. Some of her other big ticket items included a pair of ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, one of Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses from Gone With The Wind, a bowler hat of Charlie Chaplin’s, Orson Welles’ fur coat from Citizen Kane, and a Harpo Marx wig.
While she has sold off most of her collection – much-needed after she filed for bankruptcy in 1997 – she has kept a few of her favorite items, most notably a Maltese Falcon from the movie of the same name.
SHE DIDN’T BELIEVE ALBERT BROOKS HAD THE CLOUT TO CAST HER IN HIS OWN MOVIE
Carrie Fisher convinced her to meet with Albert Brooks for the movie Mother, having loved the script. Reynolds read for him, and Brooks thought she was perfect, so he told her she had the part. She sweetly explained to him that she’d still have to meet with the director to get approval. He told her he was the director. She replied that he’d need the producer’s approval, then. He explained that he was the producer, the director, and the writer, and that it was his movie, and he wanted to cast her. “You can’t just suddenly hire Debbie,” she told him, worried that he’d get in trouble with his superiors. Eventually, he was able to convince her that he was indeed the decision-maker, and the part was hers.
SHE’S NICE, EVEN WHEN YOU HURT HER
In 1997, Reynolds guest starred on the sitcom Roseanne as Dan (John Goodman’s) mother, recently released from a psychiatric institution. At one point in the Carrie Fisher-penned episode, Audrey (Reynolds) is digging a hole in the backyard to bury her son in, and she and Roseanne get into a wrestling match. What Roseanne found out a year later, when Reynolds was a guest on her talk show, was that during the tussle, Roseanne broke one of Reynolds’ ribs. (Reynolds now calls it her “Roseanne rib.”) When Roseanne expressed her gratitude – “You didn’t sue me or anything!” – Reynolds replied, “If it was anybody, I’m glad it was you.”
“The show must go on,” seems to have been written with Debbie Reynolds in mind. From her first movie role in 1948 to her most recent turn as Liberace’s mother in HBO’s Behind The Candelabra, she’s always given it her all. She once broke her ankle during a performance, and went back on stage with her foot in a bucket of ice to finish the show. Carrie Fisher’s word for her mother’s perseverance: the ability to “sur-thrive”: a lifetime achievement indeed.