Prematurely bald and 125 pounds sopping wet, Fred Astaire seemed an unlikely candidate for leading-man status–until the music started. It was then the former vaudevillian hoofer shined like no other. During the golden age of Hollywood musicals, Astaire seemed to elude gravity, only touching the ground as if on a whim.
Whether solo or paired with Ginger Rogers, Astaire was the preeminent specimen of mid century sophistication. As a man about town, matchless in carriage, his very name evokes lightness and elegance. No one moved in front of the camera like Astaire. He was the epitome of the musical, which was then the most refined, most magical expression of cinema.
After 1957, Astaire pretty much gave up on dancing in favor of dramatic roles. He acquitted himself admirably as a doomed scientist in the nuclear holocaust movie On the Beach, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his role in the disaster epic The Towering Inferno. His temperate lifestyle rewarded him with 88 healthy years, the last eight of which he spent married to a woman almost one-third his age.
The Last Word: Mikhail Baryshnikov, at a tribute to Fred Astaire: “I have been invited to say something about how dancers feel about Fred Astaire. It’s no secret that we hate him. He gives us complexes because he’s too perfect. His perfection is an absurdity.”