A day after the death of iconic Star Wars actress Carrie Fisher, her legendary mother Debbie Reynolds suffered a medical emergency and was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles where she passed away at the age of 84.
“She’s now with Carrie and we’re all heartbroken,” her son Todd Fisher said from the hospital. Reynolds was at her son's home discussing funeral arrangements for her daughter when she suffered what may have been a stroke, according to TMZ.
There was no denying Debbie Reynolds was a trouper. She may not have been the most naturally gifted actress, singer, or dancer, but she was an indefatigable and prolific worker in the Hollywood studio system. She was also one of the system’s last vestiges, a contract player at MGM until the bitter end. When that end came in the late 60s and early 70s, and MGM and the other studios were busily divesting themselves of their backlots and their troves of costumes and props, Debbie did her best to preserve what she could, buying up artifacts and striving for decades to establish a museum to showcase them. And she kept the old “That’s Entertainment!” spirit going in her many concert and nightclub appearances.
Debbie Reynolds also entered show business lore by finding herself at the center of one of Hollywood’s signature scandals when husband Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor. She subsequently weathered marriages and divorces from two more scoundrels. Not bad for a former Girl Scout troop leader from El Paso.
She came from an exceedingly modest background. As Debbie, who was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, recalls in her 2013 memoir Unsinkable, “We lived with my grandparents in a small house that had no shower — we used the bathroom at the gas station next door. I shared a bed with my brother and three uncles, who were close to us in age. My brother and I slept with our heads at the top of the bed, my uncles with theirs at the foot. I woke up every morning with toes in my nose.” Debbie’s father, a carpenter for Southern Pacific Railroad, brought his family to California in 1939.
In 1948, when Mary Frances was 16, she entered the Miss Burbank contest, lip-syncing to Betty Hutton’s voice for the talent portion of the competition; much to her surprise, she not only won the title, but a contract with Warner Bros. As Reynolds wrote in her memoir, after her religious Nazarene parents satisfied themselves that “more than the Devil’s work was being done at the studio,” she was given a new name and an unbilled part in a Bette Davis film, June Bride. Her first billing came in the 1950 musical The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady.
Dropped by Warners, she was quickly snatched up by MGM, who cast her as “boop oop a doop” singer Helen Kane in Three Little Words, followed by a role in Two Weeks with Love, where she scored a hit record singing “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter. And then, over the objections of star and co-director Gene Kelly, Louis B. Mayer himself slotted 19-year-old Debbie into the female lead in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain. What followed was a punishing round of rehearsals with Kelly, who not only was a grim taskmaster but gave a horrified Debbie her first French kiss during one of the love scenes. “Making Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I’ve ever done,” she later avowed. Her performance in the classic film is perhaps no more than pleasant, but she was cute and energetic, and her popularity soared.
The studio and press positioned Reynolds as the embodiment of 1950s girl-next-door wholesomeness, and were soon reporting that mothers all over the country were naming their little girls Debbie. Her movies, mostly lightweight affairs, included musicals (I Love Melvin, Give the Girl a Break, Hit the Deck), comedies (Susan Slept Here, Bundle of Joy) and the occasional drama (The Catered Affair). In 1957, she had a hit single with the song “Tammy” from Tammy and the Bachelor. And in the midst of all this, she met and married crooner Eddie Fisher. The couple were instantly dubbed “America’s Sweethearts.”
After Fisher’s best friend, impresario Mike Todd, was killed in a 1958 plane crash, the singer put himself in charge of comforting grieving widow Elizabeth Taylor. In her book and one-woman show Wishful Drinking, daughter Carrie Fisher described what ensued: “He first dried [Elizabeth’s] eyes with his handkerchief, then he consoled her with flowers, and he ultimately consoled her with his penis.” Carrie, who achieved her own fame as Star Wars’ Princess Leia and as author of Postcards from the Edge, was a toddler at the time; brother Todd was an infant; and Eddie was officially a world-class dog, who several years later received his cuckolding comeuppance courtesy of Richard Burton.
Yet Debbie dusted herself off, married shoe tycoon Harry Karl, and kept working. She received an Oscar nomination for her spirited performance in the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which she claimed as her favorite role. She had box-office successes in How the West Was Won, The Singing Nun, and Divorce, American Style, and when the film roles dried up, she tried a television sitcom. When that failed, she went to Broadway, earning a Tony nomination for the 1973 revival of the musical Irene.
But Karl was an out-of-control gambler, and not for the last time, Reynolds ended up both divorced and in serious financial straits. A third marriage, to real estate developer Richard Hamlett in 1984, similarly went bad after the couple bought a moribund off-Strip Las Vegas casino that they renovated and rechristened the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel, complete with a showroom for Debbie and a showplace for her memorabilia. It eventually became clear that Hamlett was robbing his soon-to-be-ex-wife blind, and in 1997 she was forced to declare bankruptcy and close the hotel. In 2011, she auctioned off most of her collection, which included Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway-grate dress from The Seven Year Itch.
Through it all, she plugged away, touring her act and making the occasional film or TV appearance. She had an unexpected late-career triumph in the title role of the Albert Brooks comedy Mother (1996), giving a formidable demonstration of the will underneath a misleadingly pixieish exterior. She also had a recurring role as Grace’s mother in the sitcom Will & Grace, shared a scene with former romantic rival Elizabeth Taylor in These Old Broads (scripted by daughter Carrie), and donned a hilarious nose and accent to portray Liberace’s mother in Behind the Candelabra.
Debbie Reynolds is survived by her son Todd Fisher and her granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd. She’s also survived by that Molly Brown gumption that led her to declare in her memoir, “In many ways, my life has been like a fairy tale. I kissed a lot of frogs, but I got a prince and Princess Leia. After thrilling triumphs and some terrible setbacks, I’m still here.”
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