Despite his somewhat puckish appearance, Fred Astaire has always been considered the embodiment of debonair sophistication and glamour.
Born Frederick Austerlitz on May 10, 1899 in Omaha, Fred was the son of a travelling salesman. When his older sister, Adele, showed an early talent in dancing, Fred, then only four, went with her to ballet school. A year later the children's mother moved to New York, and enrolled them both in a performing arts school. This school was run by Ned Wayburn, a pioneer of modern tap-dancing.
In 1905 Fred and Adele, aged 6 and 7, made their professional debut on a vaudeville stage in New Jersey and from then on toured almost continuously. Most of their education came under their mother's tuition while they were on the road.
When World War I broke out, it wasn't a good idea to have a Germanic name, so the Austerlitzes anglicised it to Astaire - a name that they were soon to make famous. They made their Broadway debut in 1917 in a revue called Over the Top -- the show didn't have much success, but Fred and Adele received a very good press.
They continued in revues dancing, usually without lines, for several years, until in 1922, performing in For Goodness' Sake they received more attention than any other performers, despite being only sixth on the bill. After this, it was the Astaires who starred, and their success continued throughout the 20's with hits like Funny Face and The Band Wagon. In 1932, however, Adele married Lord Charles Cavendish, and retired from show-business.
This was a blow to Fred. It was Adele who was considered the better dancer, and the plots of their shows had often revolved around the fact that they were brother and sister, so Fred wasn't considered to be the stuff of a romantic leading man. Even so, he and a new partner, Claire Luce, landed starring roles in Cole Porter's musical comedy The Gay Divorce. The show was a hit, but it was to be Fred's last stage musical.
Determined to make a name for himself over and above his reputation as "Adele's brother", Fred made a screen test for David O. Selznik, in 1932. He was signed by RKO despite reservations both about his looks and his acting ability. It was this test that led to the famous comment: "Can't act. Can't sing. Can dance a little."
RKO, however, had no projects for him, so in 1933, they loaned him to MGM to make his screen debut in Dancing Lady starring Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. After this movie, Fred went to London to tour with The Gay Divorce, as RKO still had no work for him.
When he returned to the US he was cast in a support part in Flying Down To Rio. Though again I small role, this time he was cast opposite an up-and-coming young dancer, Ginger Rogers. Though they only had one dance number together, Fred and Ginger stole the picture from the three stars, and became Hollywood's most celebrated dance pairing.
1933 was also a big year for Fred personally, as he married Phyllis Livingston Potter that year. The couple were to have two children: Fred Jr., born in 1936, and Ava, born in 1942.
Between 1933 and 1939 Astaire and Rogers made 9 musicals for RKO and these were some
of the biggest money-making films of the Depression era. Glitzy and glamorous, these movies provided the kind of escapism badly needed by people suffering though recession. During this time Fred proved himself to be more than just a dancer - working with the studio, he had demonstrated his talent as a choreographer, and his perfectionism was legendary. At the end of the period, however, the popularity of the duo was beginning to wane, and Fred and Ginger went their separate ways.
His contract with RKO had run out, and although he made several movies as a freelance player in the early 40's, these didn't have the same impact as his work with Rogers. In 1946, he announced his retirement and his plans to concentrate on opening a chain of Fred Astaire dance studios.
Retirement was cut short in 1948 when Gene Kelly broke an ankle and was unable to star in Easter Parade opposite Judy Garland. MGM offered Astaire the role, he accepted, and the success of the movie led to another decade of movies, this time with MGM.
In 1949, Fred received an honorary Oscar for "his unique artistry and his contributions to the technique of musical pictures." In 1959, he made his debut as a non-dancing actor in On The Beach and he published an autobiography entitled Steps in Time.
Thereafter his film work, apart from the flop musical Finian's Rainbow in 1968, was as an actor and he received an Oscar nomination for his performance in The Towering Inferno in 1974. He continued to dance professionally however, doing a lot of TV work, and his special, An Audience With Fred Astaire won nine Emmy awards.
Astaire retired from professional dancing in 1970. He was more than 70 years old, and said that his age was now restricting his ability to perform at a level that he found acceptable - no surprise, given his perfectionism.
His first wife, Phyllis, had died of cancer in 1955 and in 1980 at the age 81, Fred married again, to a 35 year-old ex-jockey called, Robyn Smith, who shared his passion for horses (he had been a racehorse and stable owner for more than 30 years). The couple lived together until Fred's death, from pneumonia, on June 22, 1987.