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.

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.

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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.

Celebrate the Holidays With the 2020 Harry Potter Funko Pop Advent Calendar

Funko
Funko

Though the main book series and movie franchise are long over, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter remains in the spotlight as one of the most popular properties in pop-culture. The folks at Funko definitely know this, and every year the company releases a new Advent calendar based on the popular series so fans can count down to the holidays with their favorite characters.

Right now, you can pre-order the 2020 edition of Funko's popular Harry Potter Advent calendar, and if you do it through Amazon, you'll even get it on sale for 33 percent off, bringing the price down from $60 to just $40.

Funko Pop!/Amazon

Over the course of the holiday season, the Advent calendar allows you to count down the days until Christmas, starting on December 1, by opening one of the tiny, numbered doors on the appropriate day. Each door is filled with a surprise Pocket Pop! figurine—but outside of the trio of Harry, Hermione, and Ron, the company isn't revealing who you'll be getting just yet.

Calendars will start shipping on October 15, but if you want a head start, go to Amazon to pre-order yours at a discount.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

13 Facts About Miller's Crossing On Its 30th Anniversary

Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
Gabriel Byrne and John Turturro in Joel and Ethan Coen's Miller's Crossing (1990).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

In 1990 Joel and Ethan Coen were not yet the Oscar-winning, cinephile-worshipped filmmaking legends they are today. They had only written and directed two films: 1984’s inventive neo-noir Blood Simple and 1987’s screwball kidnapping comedy Raising Arizona. Though the brothers had drawn critical acclaim for both, they hadn’t yet proven themselves as the true cinematic chameleons we know them as now.

With Miller’s Crossing, an intricate gangster drama that contrasts fedoras and overcoats with the serenity of the forest, the Coens proved they were capable of even more than their brilliant first two efforts suggested. Though it was critically acclaimed, Miller’s Crossing was lost to most audiences in the mire of that year’s other gangster pictures (most notably Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, which was released just two weeks ahead of Miller’s Crossing) and as such is one of the lesser-known entries in the Coens’s filmography. In honor of its 30th anniversary, we dug up some fascinating facts in the hope of changing that.

1. Miller's Crossing was inspired by a single contrasting image.

One of the most memorable shots in Miller’s Crossing features a hat belonging to Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne's character) floating through the forest on a breeze. It’s more than a pretty shot; it’s an indicator of the deliberate contrast that inspired the film. The Coen brothers noted that the film was conceived based on the idea of “the incongruity of urban gangsters in a forest setting.”

2. The Coen brothers turned down Batman to make Miller's Crossing.

After Raising Arizona’s success established the Coens as more than one-hit indie film wonders, the brothers had some options with regard to what project they could tackle next. Reportedly, their success meant that they were among the filmmakers being considered to make Batman for Warner Bros. Of course, the Coens ultimately decided to go the less commercial route, and Tim Burton ended up telling the story of The Dark Knight on the big screen.

3. Miller's Crossing was the final film the Coens made with Barry Sonnenfeld.

Barry Sonnenfeld became a very sought-after cinematographer throughout the 1980s, in part because of his collaborations with the Coens. Their directorial debut, Blood Simple, was his first feature film as a director of photography, and he went on to shoot both Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing for them. The year after Miller’s Crossing was released, Sonnenfeld made his directorial debut with The Addams Family, and went on to direct further hits like Men In Black and Get Shorty.

4. Miller's Crossing was the Coens's first collaboration with Steve Buscemi.

Steve Buscemi in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Throughout their careers, the Coens have developed a very prestigious company of actors who frequently appear in their films, and Steve Buscemi is among the most prolific. He has appeared in six Coen films, most famously Fargo (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998). The collaboration started here, when Buscemi was cast as Mink, apparently because he was able to speak faster than anyone else, and fast-talking was crucial to the role.

5. Miller's Crossing was also the Coens's first movie with John Turturro.

When John Turturro was cast as Bernie Bernbaum, the bookie who ignites the mob war at the center of Miller's Crossing, it marked the beginning of a fruitful four-film collaboration with the Coens. They wrote the title role of their next film, 1991’s Barton Fink, specifically for Turturro (who won the Cannes Film Festival’s Best Actor Award for his performance). Of the brothers’s working relationship with Turturro, Ethan Coen once said: “It’s beyond shorthand. We don’t even talk to him!”

6. Miller's Crossing is one of the few Coen brothers movies (so far) not edited by Roderick Jaynes.

To date, the Coen brothers have written and directed 18 feature films, and 15 of them have been either edited or co-edited by Roderick Jaynes. That level of deep collaboration would make Jaynes the Coens’s most frequent collaborator ever … if he were a real person. Jaynes is actually a pseudonym used when the Coens edit their own movies.

7. A sudden death led to Albert Finney being cast as Leo O'Bannon in Miller's Crossing.

As Irish mob boss Leo O’Bannon, Albert Finney is at the center of some of the film’s best scenes—and he’s fantastic in them. Sadly, though, he’s only in the film because another actor died tragically before filming began. The Coens originally cast American actor Trey Wilson, whom they had worked with on Raising Arizona, as Leo. But when Wilson died suddenly from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 40, the part went to Finney instead.

8. Peter Stormare was supposed to play a mob enforcer in Miller's Crossing.

The Coens’ original plan for Miller’s Crossing involved Peter Stormare playing a character called “The Swede,” who would be the trusted enforcer of Italian mob boss Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito). A commitment to a theatrical production in Sweden meant that Stormare had to turn down the role, though, so the part was rewritten as “The Dane” and played by J.E. Freeman. Stormare ultimately got to work with the Coens six years later on Fargo, and again two years after that on The Big Lebowski.

9. Gabriel Byrne had to convince the Coens to let him keep his Irish accent in Miller's Crossing.

Gabriel Byrne in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

Though he was an Irish native playing a lieutenant to an Irish mobster, the Coens did not originally want Gabriel Byrne to use his own accent in the film. Byrne argued that his dialogue was structured in such a way that it was a good fit for his accent, and after he tried it, the Coens agreed. Ultimately, both Byrne and Finney used Irish accents in the film.

10. Marcia Gay Harden faced some stiff competition for her role in Miller's Crossing.

As Verna Bernbaum, whose relationships with both Leo and Tom ignite some of the film’s key tensions, Marcia Gay Harden delivered one of the best performances of her career, but it wasn’t an easy role to get. She reportedly competed for the role against the likes of Julia Roberts, Demi Moore, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

11. Jon Polito had to convince the Coens to cast him in a different role in Miller's Crossing.

Jon Polito in Miller's Crossing (1990).20th Century Fox Home Entertainment

When Polito read the Miller’s Crossing script, he loved it and immediately wanted to audition for the role of Johnny Caspar. The Coens had different ideas, and were considering the 39-year-old actor for the role of Caspar’s enforcer, Eddie Dane, instead. The role of Caspar was originally supposed to go to an actor in his mid-50s, but Polito was adamant.

“Anyway, I said I won’t read for anything but Johnny Caspar,” Polito, who passed away in 206, told The A.V. Club. “’And tell them that they’re gonna have to come back to me cause I’m gonna play Johnny.’”

The Coens ultimately gave in, and Polito was cast. They must have liked what they saw, too, because they ended up casting him in four more films after that.

12. A snag in the Miller's Crossing script ultimately led to Barton Fink.

Miller’s Crossing is a complicated beast, full of characters double-crossing each other and scheming for mob supremacy. In fact, it’s so complicated that at one point during the writing process the Coens had to take a break. It turned out to be a productive one: While Miller’s Crossing was on pause, the brothers wrote the screenplay for Barton Fink, the story of a writer who can’t finish a script.

13. Miller's Crossing features several cameos from regular Coen collaborators.

The Coens frequently include cameos from actors and friends in their films, and Miller’s Crossing is particularly full of them. Frances McDormand, who is married to Joel Coen and has appeared in several of their films to date (including Fargo, for which she won an Oscar), plays the mayor’s secretary in one scene. In another, Sam Raimi—a Coen friend and collaborator (the Coens wrote 1985’s Crimewave with Raimi, which Raimi directed, and Raimi later co-wrote The Hudsucker Proxy with the brothers—appears as a crooked cop in a shootout scene. Albert Finney already had a prominent role as Leo, but he enjoyed making the movie so much that he stuck around after his scenes were completed and showed up in drag in a ladies’ room scene. (He’s the “woman” in black on the right side of the screen.)

This story has been updated for 2020.