14 Toe-Tapping Facts About Fred Astaire

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Born on May 10, 1899, Fred Astaire was an actor, dancer, vaudevillian, and movie star whose career spanned nearly eight decades. Here are 14 toe-tapping facts you might not know about the legendary dancer.

1. HE STARTED DANCING AT AGE 4 AND PERFORMING PROFESSIONALLY AT AGE 6.

As a toddler, Astaire’s mother would bring him to pick up his sister Adele from ballet class. In his autobiography, Astaire recalled:

“The story goes that one time when I had gone with my mother to fetch Adele, I put on a pair of ballet slippers. I found them in a corner while I was dawdling around the place, killing time, waiting for Adele to finish her lesson. I had seen other children walk on their toes, so I put on the slippers and walked on my toes. It was as simple as that.”

By the time Fred was six and Adele was eight, the family had moved to New York City, where the siblings were enrolled in a performing arts school and began performing professionally.

2. HE WAS IN A VAUDEVILLE ACT WITH HIS SISTER—AND WAS INITIALLY CONSIDERED THE LESS TALENTED SIBLING.

Fred and Adele Astaire
Fox Photos/Getty Images

The brother-sister dance team made their vaudeville debut with an act called “Juvenile Artists Presenting An Electric Musical Toe-Dancing Novelty.” They continued to perform together into their thirties, only separating when Adele quit dancing to marry a British nobleman. Throughout this time, according to The New York Times, Fred consistently played second fiddle to his glamorous and talented sister. While audiences loved the siblings, critics tended to focus more on Adele than Fred. One critic even went as far as to profess his love for Adele in a headline for The Chicago Herald-Examiner which read, “Falling in Love With Adele Astaire. In Which It Is Told How the Well-Known Heart of Ashton Stevens Is Stricken by the Deftest of the Dancing Girls.” When Fred began performing without his sister, critics were initially dubious (“two Astaires are better than one” wrote one critic of Fred’s first musical performance without Adele).

3. HE WAS CHILDHOOD FRIENDS WITH GEORGE GERSHWIN.

Astaire became friends with George Gershwin when he was 14 and Gershwin was 15. At the time, Gershwin was working for a music publisher and dreaming of composing his own music. According to The New York Times, “Gershwin was working for $15 a week, plugging other people’s songs, and the boys dreamed of George’s writing a musical for Fred one day.” That dream came true, multiple times, with Broadway shows like 1927’s Funny Face, and movies like Shall We Dance (1937), which was the first film George and Ira Gershwin scored.

4. PRODUCERS WERE UNIMPRESSED WITH HIS FIRST SCREEN TEST.

According to legend, producer David O. Selznick was out of town when Astaire shot his screen test for RKO. Whoever was filling in for Selznick was unimpressed by Astaire, jotting down a note that read, “Can’t Act. Slightly Bald. Also Dances.” But Selznick was ultimately so blown away by Astaire’s dancing that despite Astaire’s “enormous ears and bad chin line,” he gave him a contract at RKO.

5. HE MADE 10 FILMS WITH GINGER ROGERS.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Between 1933 and 1949, Astaire and Rogers appeared in 10 films together, starting with Flying Down To Rio (1933) starring Dolores del Río, in which both had minor roles, and ending with The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), in which the pair reunited after a nearly 10-year hiatus. The Barkleys of Broadway was both their only film together outside of RKO—it was released by MGM—and their only film shot in Technicolor.

6. INITIALLY, ASTAIRE REFUSED TO WORK WITH ROGERS.

Though they became one of Hollywood’s most beloved on-screen couples, Astaire was initially wary of being paired with Rogers. He’d only recently ended his decades-long partnership with Adele and was reluctant to be officially linked to another dancer. He sent a telegram to his agent, Leland Hayward, which read, “What’s all this talk about me being teamed with Ginger Rogers? I will not have it Leland ... I’ve just managed to live down one partnership and I don’t want to be bothered with any more.”

7. HE CREATED A FORMULA FOR ALL HIS FILMS.

If Astaire’s movies with Rogers sometimes seem a little formulaic, that’s because they were—literally. Working with producer Pandro Berman and director Mark Sandrich, Astaire graphed out the structure he would use for all of his films, down to the minute. In the short documentary On Top: Inside The Success of 'Top Hat,' Astaire biographer Larry Billman explains that Astaire drew a chart for each of his films to follow, specifying how many minutes could elapse between the beginning of the film and its first musical number, how many minutes of comedy, romance, and drama there should be between dance numbers. “They really put all the elements down in terms of timing, and they followed that,” Billman said. “We have to meet our characters, he has to be enamored of her, and he sings and dances.”

8. HE REDEFINED THE WAY DANCE SEQUENCES WERE FILMED.

Before Astaire hit Hollywood, musical movies were shot very differently, with lots of fast cuts and close-ups during dance sequences. “Before him, particularly because of the influence of Busby Berkeley numbers in the Warner Bros. films, there was a feeling that you needed to have a lot of cuts to focus on specific aspects of the dance, like the dancer’s feet, and so forth,” film historian Rick Jewell explained in On Top. “Once Astaire becomes the creative genius behind the films, you see a movement backwards toward a much more simple, pure, classical kind of way of shooting films so that you seen the dancers in full figure.”

Astaire insisted that his dances be filmed in long takes and wide shots, with as few cuts as possible, allowing audiences to feel as though they were watching a dancer on stage. He famously told his cameraman, “Either I’m gonna dance, or the camera’s gonna dance—and I’m gonna dance.” In most of his films, Astaire’s dance sequences seem as though they’re filmed in one long take, giving the sense that the audience is watching a live performance. “What that did is it forced directors and cameramen and choreographers to think differently,” film critic Leonard Maltin said in On Top. “It was not about fragmentation, it was about performance.”

9. HE INFLUENCED THE WAY JACKIE CHAN CHOREOGRAPHS HIS KUNG FU SCENES.

Novelist Donald Westlake once wrote, “Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire, and the world is Ginger Rogers.” Jackie Chan, himself, cites Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as two of the primary influences on his fight choreography. “Right now you can see a lot of dancers on MTV. When they move, bup ... bup ... bup. You have 20 cuts. Camera tricks, camera movements, with special effects,” Chan once told Kung Fu Magazine. “When you look back in the old days with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire: five minutes without editing. Just singing, dancing, moving to the piano or the light pole … That's what I want.”

10. HE WAS A BIG FAN OF MICHAEL JACKSON.

Michael Jackson—who dedicated his autobiography to Astaire—wrote in Moonwalk about the time Astaire called to congratulate him after a particularly impressive television performance. Jackson wrote, “He said—these are his exact words—‘You’re a hell of a mover. Man, you really put them on their asses last night.’ That’s what Fred Astaire said to me. I thanked him. Then he said, ‘You’re an angry dancer. I’m the same way. I used to do the same thing with my cane.’” Astaire may even have seen Jackson as a successor. He’s quoted in Michael Jackson: The Golden Book of Condolence as saying, “Oh God! That boy moves in a very exceptional way. That’s the greatest dancer of the century. I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was. Thank you Michael!”

11. HIS LAST ON-SCREEN DANCE WAS IN AN EPISODE OF BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

At age 80, in 1979, Astaire performed a brief disco-inspired dance alongside actress Anne Jeffreys on an episode of Battlestar Galactica. Astaire, who agreed to appear on the show because his grandkids watched it, guest starred as an alien prince, and wore an “an ascot (probably his suggestion), a vest, and a space costume,” according to biographer Peter Levinson.

12. HE WAS ADDICTED TO SOAP OPERAS.

According to The New York Times, Astaire was “addicted to television serials such as The Guiding Light and As the World Turns," and would “telephone his housekeeper if he could not watch the soap operas to find out what had happened.”

13. HE WORKED WITH THE SAME CHOREOGRAPHER ON 17 FILMS.

Throughout his career, Astaire collaborated with choreographer Hermes Pan on 17 movies. Before shooting began on his collaborations with Ginger Rogers, Astaire and Pan would spend six weeks choreographing and rehearsing dance sequences, with Pan filling in for Rogers (who was often busy shooting another film). According to biographer Larry Billman, Astaire and Pan weren’t just artistic collaborators and best friends—they also looked almost exactly alike. “Talk about an alter ego,” Billman said in On Top. “If you saw Fred and Hermes together, you’d swear they were brothers, identical twins.” In On Top, Astaire’s daughter Ava even admits to occasionally confusing the two, explaining, “I, myself, even made a mistake one day in the rehearsal. Somebody came in and said, ‘Where is Fred,’ and I pointed and said, ‘Over there.’ But it was Pan I was pointing to.”

14. OVER THE COURSE OF HIS NEARLY EIGHT-DECADE CAREER, HE WORKED WITH EVERYONE FROM AUDREY HEPBURN TO FRANCIS FORD COPPOLA. 

Though Astaire is best remembered for his films with Rogers, he worked with a wide range of film and theater legends throughout his eight-decade career. Just a few of those collaborators include Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Astaire in the musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968); Audrey Hepburn, who appeared with Astaire in the 1957 film adaptation of Funny Face (a musical originally written specifically for Fred and his sister by George Gershwin in 1927); Irving Berlin, who composed the music for many of Astaire’s films; and Bing Crosby, with whom he co-starred in three films. Though he was best known for his dance films, Astaire also appeared in a handful of non-musical films, including The Notorious Landlady (1962) which also starred Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon, and The Towering Inferno (1974). His final film, the 1981 horror movie Ghost Story, was also the final film of Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

15 Clever Breaking Bad Easter Eggs Hiding in Better Call Saul

Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
Patrick Fabian, Rhea Seehorn, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Michael Mando, Giancarlo Esposito, and Tony Dalton in Better Call Saul.
James Minchin/AMC

As evidenced by Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan and his cohorts have an eye for detail that’s nearly unrivaled. If anything, Better Call Saul—which is originally set several years before the events of Breaking Bad—only proves the point. The series, which is about to kick off its fifth season, focuses on Jimmy McGill (soon to become Saul Goodman) and is full of references to its progenitor, some of which are pure fun, and some of which add a deeper meaning to what we already know. Here are 15 clever Breaking Bad Easter eggs hiding in Better Call Saul.

**Warning: Plenty of spoilers ahead for both series.**

1. Being Kevin Costner

In a throwaway moment in Breaking Bad, Saul mentions to Walt that he once convinced a woman he was Kevin Costner (“If you’re committed enough, you can make any story work”), and in the finale of the first season of Better Call Saul, we see the exact moment he was referring to. In case we thought that Saul was just making the story up for the sake of a pep talk, here’s the proof otherwise.

2. Neighborhood mainstay

If the diner where Jimmy first meets with the Kettlemans looked familiar to you, it’s for good reason. Loyola’s Diner featured in Breaking Bad as a mainstay of Mike’s—he met with Jesse there, as well as Lydia. It’s also, incidentally, a very real restaurant in Albuquerque. And while we’re on the subject of Mike and food, he’s been shown to be fond of pimento cheese sandwiches in both series.

3. Address unknown

David Costabile as Gale Boetticher in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

In Better Call Saul, it’s shown that Jimmy's office is at 160 Juan Tabo Boulevard (which is a real nail salon). Those of you with a head for directions might also recall that that’s the same street that the ill-fated chemist Gale Boetticher lives on, at 6353 Juan Tabo Boulevard. Breaking Bad fans were thrilled when the karaoke-loving chemist appeared in Season 4 of Better Call Saul (with hopefully more to come).

4. The Ignacio connection

Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul
Michael Mando as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

When he’s kidnapped by Walt and Jesse after refusing to help a busted Badger, Saul spits out a variety of nonsense in an attempt to stay alive. He also drops a name: Ignacio. So who is he talking about? As we learn in Better Call Saul, this refers to Nacho, who’s become one of the secondary leads on the show. “Nacho” is a nickname, short for Ignacio, which makes sense as a connection given how closely he’s been working with Jimmy/Saul.

5. Cheap tricks

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Michele K. Short, AMC/Sony Pictures

There’s another callback to the first time that Walt, Jesse, and Saul meet. Despite still having his hands tied behind his back, when Saul agrees to help Walt and Jesse, he tells them to each put a dollar in his pocket in order to secure attorney-client privilege. It seems that Saul got that idea from Kim, who, when she decides to help Jimmy after discovering he’s falsified evidence, tells him to give her a dollar for exactly the same reason.

6. Old afflictions

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in 'Better Call Saul'
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill and Mel Rodriguez as Marco Pasternak in Better Call Saul.
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In yet another reference to that fateful first meeting, we learn that Saul isn’t bluffing when he tells Walt and Jesse that he has bad knees. He says the same thing when cops apprehend him in the first season of Better Call Saul. As to why he’s got bad knees to begin with, it all comes from his time as “Slippin’ Jimmy,” when he used to stage falls in order to earn a little bit of money.

7. Car talk

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

Saul Goodman drives a white 1997 Cadillac DeVille with the vanity plate “LWYRUP.” Jimmy McGill’s ride is much more modest: a yellow Suzuki Esteem with a red door. That said, in the pilot of Better Call Saul, we very briefly see a white Cadillac DeVille—Jimmy parks his car next to it, in a truly blink-and-you-miss-it allusion to what’s to come. (Gus, notably, is driving the same blue Volvo in both shows.)

8. Home sweet home

In Better Call Saul, one of the retirement homes that Jimmy visits in his quest to find new clients for his growing elder law business is Casa Tranquila. If it sounds familiar, that's because it's a key location in Breaking Bad as the home of Hector Salamanca, and the place where he kills his longtime nemesis Gus Fring. It’s a nice touch to revisit the location, especially given the fact that Better Call Saul gives us the story as to how Hector wound up in a wheelchair in the first place.

9. What's your poison?

There’s also a nice bit of brand continuity with the made-up tequila Zafiro Añejo. Gus poisons a bottle to get back at Don Eladio in Breaking Bad, and we see the same blue bottle pop up in Better Call Saul when Jimmy and Kim scam a cocky stock broker named Ken. Ken, for his part, seems to be reaping a constant stream of bad karma, as he’s also in Breaking Bad as a victim of Heisenberg’s wrath. He swipes Walt’s parking spot—and has his car set on fire for his trouble.

10. The little piggy

Though Mike is hard as nails, he’s got a soft spot the size of Texas for his granddaughter Kaylee. He gifts her a pink pig plush in Better Call Saul, which crops up again in Breaking Bad under slightly less cute circumstances. He uses the doll as a distraction when an assassination attempt is made on his life.

11. Word games

Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring in 'Breaking Bad'
Ursula Coyote, AMC

The first letters of the episode titles of the second season of Better Call Saul are an anagram for “FRING’S BACK.” It’s a granular sort of trick that the creators have pulled off before: four of the episodes of season two of Breaking Bad spell out “Seven Thirty-Seven Down Over ABQ.” In the season finale, a 737 plane does indeed go down over Albuquerque, or ABQ.

12. Sentimental value

Given that Saul’s Breaking Bad office has a lot of strange objects in it, it’d be easy to miss the octagonal desk. As it turns out, the offices of Saul Goodman aren’t the desk’s first home: it’s seen in the background of Kim’s office in Better Call Saul. It’s retroactive, sure, but it’s still nice to know that Saul has some mementos around.

13. Movie night

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul'
Ursula Coyote, AMC/Sony Pictures Television

There’s also a little sentimental value in the name of Saul’s holding company, Ice Station Zebra Associates, which he uses to help Walt launder money in Breaking Bad. As we discover in Better Call Saul, Ice Station Zebra is Kim’s favorite movie, due to her father’s affection for it. Though Kim is physically absent from Breaking Bad, small details seem to tie back to her all the time.

14. Set dressing

Krazy-8, may he rest in peace, also shows up in Better Call Saul. The van that he drives has the logo for Tampico Furniture on it, and he’s wearing a uniform with the logo as well. Tampico is where Walt, as he recalls in Breaking Bad, bought Walter Jr.’s crib. Unfortunately, those fond memories aren’t quite enough to save Krazy-8’s skin.

15. Beware of bugs

Before Mike leaves Philly for Albuquerque, a bartender tells him to be mindful of tarantulas. The spider plays a key role in Breaking Bad later on, as a young boy’s pursuit of the bug puts him in Walt’s path—and Todd’s path, by proxy. Determined to make a good impression on Walt, and knowing that there can’t be any witnesses to what they’re doing, Todd shoots the boy in one of the most shocking and cold-blooded moments in the entire series.

An earlier version of this story ran in 2018.

This Land Is Your Land: The Story Behind America's Best-Known Protest Song

American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
American singer Woody Guthrie, circa 1960.
Woody Guthrie: Getty Images. Landscape: iStock/mammuth

Few songs are more ingrained in the American psyche than "This Land Is Your Land," the greatest and best-known work by folk icon Woody Guthrie. For decades, it's been a staple of kindergarten classrooms "from California to the New York island," as the lyrics go. It's the musical equivalent of apple pie, though the flavor varies wildly depending on who's doing the singing.

On its most basic level, "This Land Is Your Land" is a song about inclusion and equality—the American ideal broken down into simple, eloquent language and set to a melody you memorize on first listen. The underlying message, repeated throughout the song, makes the heart swell: "This land was made for you and me."

But there's more to "This Land Is Your Land" than many people realize—two verses more, in fact. Guthrie's original 1940 draft of the song contains six verses, two of which carry progressive political messages that add nuance to the song's overt patriotism. These controversial verses are generally omitted from children's songbooks and the like, but they speak volumes about Guthrie's mindset when he put pen to paper 80 years ago.

 

Guthrie wrote "This Land Is Your Land" in a divey hotel room in New York City. He'd just landed in Manhattan after years of rambling across the country and meeting impoverished people affected by the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Throughout his travels in the late '30s, Guthrie was haunted by Kate Smith's hit recording of Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." Guthrie found Berlin's song to be jingoistic and out of touch with the reality facing many of his fellow citizens. So he set about writing a response.

Guthrie originally titled his rejoinder "God Blessed America"—emphasis on the past tense—but eventually changed his tone. Instead of doing a sarcastic parody, he wrote a song that pulls double-duty, celebrating America's natural splendor while criticizing the nation for falling short of its promise. In the "lost" fourth verse, Guthrie decries the notion of private property, suggesting America is being carved up by the wealthy:

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said: 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.

The sixth and final verse in the original manuscript references the poor folks Guthrie saw living on government assistance during the Great Depression:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if
God blessed America for me?

When Guthrie first recorded the song in 1944, he included the verse about private property but left out the one about the relief office. That original recording was lost until the '90s, however, so for years, all anyone knew was the version Guthrie recorded for 1951's Songs to Grow On. Guthrie's rendition on that album features neither the "no trespassing" verse nor the one about the relief office, which he never actually recorded.

It's unclear why the 1944 recording with the "private property" verse was never released, or why Guthrie edited out the radical stuff for the 1951 version. (He also chopped out both controversial verses when he first published the lyrics in the 1945 pamphlet Ten of Woody Guthrie's Songs.) It may have had something to do with the mounting anti-communist furor that would lead to the Red Scare of the late '40s and early '50s. As a pro-union communist sympathizer, Guthrie and his fellow rabble-rousing folky buddy Pete Seeger had already faced industry blacklisting in the early '40s.

"We did one program on CBS Radio, and a newspaper reported out, said, 'Red minstrels try to get on the networks,'" Seeger told NPR. "And that was the last job we got."

Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Woody Guthrie, circa March 1943.
Penn State, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Regardless of which verses are included, "This Land Is Your Land" is terrific for singing. That was by design. Guthrie likely stole the melody from the Carter Family's 1935 tune "Little Darling, Pal of Mine," which itself was patterned after an old gospel hymn titled "When the World's On Fire" (sometimes called "Oh, My Loving Brother"). "This Land" was a perfect fit for classrooms and campsites, where the song would take on new life.

 

In the early '50s, famed American folklorist Alan Lomax came up with a nifty plan for preserving the nation's musical heritage. He approached legendary music publisher Howie Richmond with the idea of including rural folk songs—the kind he'd been documenting for the Library of Congress—in school music textbooks. Richmond, who had become Guthrie's publisher in 1950, loved the idea, and to sweeten the deal for textbook publishers, he lowered his usual licensing rates and offered "This Land Is Your Land" for just $1.

That's how "This Land Is Your Land" went viral and became nearly as ubiquitous as the national anthem, even without the radio play and jukebox real estate of Smith's "God Bless America." While the versions distributed to America's impressionable youth lacked "no trespassing" and "relief office" verses, the song's original lyrics were never forgotten. Following Guthrie's death in 1967, artists like Seeger continued performing the "lost verses," lest people forget the anger that inspired the song.

But regardless of Guthrie's intentions, "This Land Is Your Land" has come to mean different things to different people. That's part of what makes it so timeless. When President Ronald Reagan used the song at his victory party in 1984, after it had been used by Walter Mondale's campaign, both sides were probably trying to evoke feel-good patriotism. The same goes for Reagan's advisors and allies who were invoking Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." during rallies and in newspaper articles. Reagan himself name-checked Springsteen and his "message of hope" during a rally in Hammonton, New Jersey. The president either didn't know or didn't care that "Born in the U.S.A." was another song about loving your country but hating how poorly it treats some of its citizens.

Ironically, the Boss had begun performing "This Land Is Your Land" in the early '80s. On the version included on the Live 1975–85 box set, Springsteen gives his audience the backstory about Irving Berlin and refers to "This Land" as "just about one of the most beautiful songs ever written." And, when given the opportunity to perform the song with Pete Seeger at Barack Obama's pre-inauguration concert in 2009, he readily agreed to sing all the verses at Seeger's insistence.

Over the years, "This Land Is Your Land" has been covered by everyone from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello, who performed the song in Zuccotti Park during an Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011. Lady Gaga sang a snippet to open her Super Bowl halftime show in 2017, causing fans and critics to speculate about whether she was making a political statement. She mashed it up with "God Bless America," so it's a safe bet she knew the history of the song.

 

There may be even more officially recorded versions in years to come. Much like what has been done with ubiquitous songs like "Happy Birthday" and "We Shall Overcome" (which Seeger toured with and taught across the country at rallies and protests throughout the '50s and '60s), there is a push to have "This Land Is Your Land" enter the public domain. The Brooklyn rock band Satorii filed a lawsuit in 2016 challenging the copyrights held by the Richmond Organization and its subsidiary, Ludlow Music, and maintain that since Guthrie only wrote the lyrics and not that pilfered melody, he shouldn't have been able to register the song in the first place, nor should Ludlow have been able to own the copyright. The suit is ongoing.

Whether it enters the public domain, as one imagines Guthrie would have wanted, or doesn't, "This Land Is Your Land" isn't going anywhere. The song has been adopted and modified by Native Americans, Swedish anti-Nazi troubadours, and people all over the globe who find truth and comfort in Guthrie's words, however they choose to interpret them.

"The whole idea of a land is your spot on Earth, you know," Woody's daughter Nora told NPR. "A spot where you can claim safety, sanity."

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER