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.
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.
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.