The American actor, singer, and entrepreneur Debbie Reynolds (1932–2016) was a familiar face in film comedies, romances, and musicals during the middle of the 20th century. Her private life became fodder for newspaper gossip columns as her marriage to actor Eddie Fisher dissolved, but her girl-next-door image survived, and she took a series of acting roles that brought her critical acclaim in later life.
Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds in El Paso, Texas, on April 1, 1932, and she took the first name Debbie at the beginning of her career in Hollywood. Her father, Ray Reynolds, was a railroad worker who struggled to keep the bills paid during the Great Depression. Her mother, Maxene, helped out by working as a laundress. At one period during the Depression, the Reynolds family lived in a cellar with a dirt floor. When Reynolds was seven, Ray joined many other Texans and moved his family to Southern California in search of opportunity. Although jobs were available in Hollywood, this held no appeal because the Reynoldses were members of the Church of the Nazarene and believed that movies were sinful. They settled in suburban Burbank, where Mary Frances attended high school and took gymnastics lessons, played the French horn, and became a cheerleader. She made plans to apply to college and pursue a career as a gym teacher.
Despite the move west from Texas, finances remained strained in the Reynolds home, and Mary Frances entered the 1948 Miss Burbank beauty contest primarily because entrants received a free scarf and blouse. She was energetic, talented, and charismatic, with tomboyish good looks, and her victory in the pageant changed the course of her life. Two of the judges were Hollywood talent scouts, and both wanted to sign Reynolds to a contract; they flipped a coin, and she was signed to the Warner Brothers studio. By then 16 years old, she made an uncredited appearance in the film June Bride in 1948, and her official debut came two years later in the musical The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady. After Warner Brothers sold Reynolds's contract to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), she was cast as 1920s jazz singer Helen Kane in Three Little Words. She also appeared in the musical Two Weeks with Love, where she popularized the song “Aba-Daba Honeymoon” during a duet with Carleton Carpenter.
With a screenplay by Hollywood scriptwriting greats Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Singin' in the Rain marked Reynolds's debut as a dancer, and when she was cast in the part she had no formal dance training. MGM head Louis B. Mayer surprised film star Gene Kelly and co-director Stanley Donen in 1952 when he not only cast her as chorus girl Kathy Selden but gave her second billing in the dance extravaganza. Kelly's surprise hardened into hostility and ridicule toward the young actress when she began a crash course in top-level film musical dance. The dance lessons were so strenuous that Reynolds was sometimes left with bloody feet, and she alternated this rigorous training with work alongside a voice coach, hoping to eliminate her Texas accent and lower the pitch of her voice. Despite Kelly's objections, Mayer remained resolute and was rewarded when Singin' in the Rain took several major industry awards and entered the canon of classic movie musicals. By 1954 a Modern Screen magazine poll positioned Reynolds among the top-ten female movie stars in the United States.
Reynolds's star power grew even larger the following year when she met, fell in love with, and married pop vocal star Eddie Fisher. The pair appeared together in the musical Bundle of Joy in 1956. She and Fisher seemed to be the perfect couple and had two children, Carrie and Todd. Reynolds would later confess, however, that the marriage was strained and had in fact been pushed on them by Hollywood's publicity machine. The affair started after Fisher consoled the couple's British-born friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor, following the tragic death of her thenhusband Michael Todd in a plane crash. The emotional closeness flowered into a physical relationship, and Reynolds and Fisher divorced in 1959. She and Taylor reconciled and later resumed their friendship; Fisher later married fellow singer Connie Stevens.
Reynolds had one of her few dramatic roles in 1963's star-studded epic How the West Was Won, narrated by Spencer Tracy. The following year she earned an Academy Award nomination and one of her highest levels of critical acclaim for The Unsinkable Molly Brown, portraying the American socialite who survived the sinking of the Titanic ocean liner. From this career high, Reynolds experienced a new low: a series of flops, including The Singing Nun (1966) and Divorce American Style (1967).
In 1969 Reynolds tried her hand at television, and her The Debbie Reynolds Show earned a Golden Globe nomination and was popular enough among British fans that it was satirized in the English comedy series Monty Python's Flying Circus. The series ended after a year, however, when Reynolds walked away after objecting to the NBC network's practice of selling the show's commercial airtime to cigarette companies. Reynolds's next role marked another first: a voice-over part as Charlotte the spider in the 1973 animated film version of E.B. White's childhood classic Charlotte's Web.
Reynolds's personal life did not grow easier after her divorce from Fisher. In 1960 she married shoe retailer Harry Karl, who suffered from a gambling addiction. The couple divorced in 1973, and Reynolds, with few financial resources, now turned to live theater. She appeared that year in the Broadway musical Irene, alongside actress daughter Carrie Fisher, and earned an Antoinette Perry (“Tony” ) award nomination for best actress in a musical. Reynolds went on to star in several other Broadway productions, including the 1976 one-woman show Debbie. In 1984 she married developer Richard Hamlett, and together with her new husband opened the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in 1993. The hotel was located in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Reynolds had made many appearances as a singer, and she often appeared as the marquee act. She and Hamlett divorced in 1996, and Reynolds sold the hotel the following year.
Following her divorce, Reynolds's personal challenges led her to new creative opportunities. In 1996 she appeared in the comedy Mother, taking the title role opposite the comedian Albert Brooks and earning critical raves. From 1999 to 2006 she was cast in a recurring guest role in the television comedy series Will & Grace, earning an Emmy Award nomination as outstanding guest actress in a comedy series in 2000. In 2013 she produced a book-length memoir, Unsinkable, and that same year she appeared in the Home Box Office production of Behind the Candelabra, a biography of Liberace, as the pianist's mother.
Typical of mother-daughter relationships, Reynolds and Carrie Fisher had several clashes that were amplified in the Hollywood press. The two became increasingly close in later years, however, and the 2013 documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds aired at the New York Film Festival in the fall of 2016. A popular actress due to her role as Princess Leia in the “Star Wars” film saga, Fisher died suddenly following an in-flight heart attack, on December 27, 2016. The 84-year-old Reynolds, while discussing funeral arrangements for her 60-year-old daughter, suffered a stroke and died the next day in Los Angeles.
Reynolds, Debbie, Debbie: My Life, Morrow, 1988.
Reynolds, Debbie, Unsinkable, Morrow, 2013.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), December 30, 2016, “Debbie Reynolds; Actress Who Made Her Name in ‘Singin’ in the Rain' and Specialised in Playing ‘the Girl Next Door,’” p. 31.
Los Angeles Times, December 17, 1966, “Debbie Reynolds Still Unsinkable.”
New York Times, December 29, 2016, Anita Gates, “Debbie Reynolds Dies at 84; Won Hearts of Generations,” p. A1.
People, November 25, 1974, Jim Watters, “Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds: At 42, She Salvages Her Career.”
Texas Monthly, May 1997, Anne Dingus, “Debbie Reynolds,” p. 208.
Allmovie, https://www.allmovie.com/artist/p59782 (November 28, 2017), Jason Ankeny, “Debbie Reynolds Biography.” □