Hollywood legend Debbie Reynolds has died aged 84, just one day after the death of her daughter, famed actress and author Carrie Fisher. Her death was confirmed by her son, Todd Fisher. “The last thing she said this morning was that she was very, very sad about losing Carrie and that she would like to be with her again,” Todd said. “Fifteen minutes later she suffered a severe stroke.” Debbie died just hours after she was taken to Cedars Sinai medical center from her son’s house in Beverly Hills on Wednesday afternoon. “The only thing we’re taking solace in is that what she wanted to do was take care of her daughter, which is what she did best,” he added. On Friday, Debbie’s daughter Carrie Fisher reportedly suffered a heart attack on a flight from London to Los Angeles. Debbie posted on her Facebook page on Christmas Day that Carrie was in a stable condition. Carrie Fisher died two days later.
Marie Frances Reynolds was born in El Paso, Texas; when she was 8, her carpenter father moved the family to Burbank. At age 16, “Frannie” entered the Miss Burbank Contest, winning in 1948 for her imitation of Betty Hutton singing “My Rockin’ Horse Ran Away.” She was spotted by Warner Bros. talent scout Solly Baiano, who signed her to a $65-a-week contract. Studio head Jack Warner renamed her Debbie — against her wishes, she said.
Reynolds languished at the studio, often having to perform errands such as escorting visitors on tours or addressing envelopes; she appeared in front of the cameras only for a bit parts. When the contract lapsed, MGM picked her up at $300 a week. The studio where she would reside for the next 20 years. After the studio insisted on her as the romantic lead in “Singin’ in the Rain,” Gene Kelly put her through rigorous dance training, which she admitted she needed. “They took this virgin talent, this little thing, and expected her to hold her own with Gene and with Donald O’Connor, two of the best dancers in the business,” she once told an interviewer. Many years later, “Singin’ in the Rain” was No. 1 on AFI’s 100 Years of Musicals list, and ranked No. 5 in its 2007 list of the greatest American films.
An effervescent Reynolds went on to star in a series of charming youthful musicals. in 1955 23-year-old Reynolds married 27-year-old crooner Eddie Fisher. They became the darlings of the fan magazines, and co-starred in Bundle of Joy (1956), the same year she gave birth to Carrie. “Tammy and the Bachelor” in 1957, which featured her million-selling single of the ballad “Tammy,” defined Reynolds as the wholesome all-American type.
In 1957, Eddie and Debbie were best man and matron of honour at the wedding in Acapulco of Fisher’s lifelong friend, impresario Mike Todd to Elizabeth Taylor. A little over a year later, Todd was killed in a plane crash, and Taylor sought solace in Fisher’s arms, causing a huge Hollywood scandal. Taylor, who had been cast as the Grieving Widow, now found herself in the role of the Vamp, while Reynolds was widely and sympathetically portrayed as the Wronged Woman. However, the public was unaware that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was already in a bad state, although Debbie was pregnant with their son Todd (named after Mike). But divorce was inevitable and, on 12 May, 1959, Taylor married Fisher at a synagogue in Las Vegas. Despite being the divorced mother of two small children, Reynolds was never more active. In 1959, she was among the top 10 Hollywood box-office stars.
In November 1960, Reynolds married millionaire shoe-store magnate Harry Karl, and pursued her career with added vigour. When Shirley MacLaine dropped out of 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” Reynolds got her best chance to shine centerstage in a musical comedy. (One of the show’s signature songs, “I Ain’t Down Yet,” became an unofficial anthem for the actress as she survived all the turmoil in her life.)
When, Reynolds, now pushing 35, saw her film career gradually slowing to a virtual halt, she reinvented herself as a cabaret performer, appearing most frequently on stage in Las Vegas. Reynolds also shifted her attention to US television starting with 18 episodes of The Debbie Reynolds Show (1969-1970), a sitcom resembling I Love Lucy, in which she played a suburban housewife with ambitions to become a newspaper reporter. She continued to appear regularly on TV for the next four decades.
In 1973, the actress divorced Karl and discovered she was almost $3 million in debt as a result of his gambling losses. She worked it off by appearing 42 weeks a year in nightclubs and Las Vegas and Reno. She also established the Debbie Reynolds Professional Studios in Burbank. She went to Broadway in a revival of “Irene,” drawing a 1973 Tony nomination for Best Actress in a musical, which gave daughter Carrie Fisher one of her first roles. Reynolds appeared in a number of successful exercise tapes for older women, “Do It Debbie’s Way,” and co-authored the autobiography “Debbie, My Life” in 1987. That same year, Reynolds’ private life was again in the spotlight when Carrie Fisher’s novel “Postcards From the Edge” debuted. The work centered on the stormy relationship between an actress and her showbiz-star mother. Though many were convinced this was a roman a clef, Reynolds laughingly dismissed comparisons with the self-centered mom.
Reynolds returned to the big screen in the 90s, where she showed that she had lost none of her comic timing playing a number of sweet-voiced monster mums, having eerily maintained her kewpie-doll looks. These included Albert Brooks’s Mother (1996), her first leading film role for 27 years, In & Out (1997) and Zack and Reba (1998), as well as appearing in 10 episodes of Will and Grace on TV, portraying Grace’s mother, a would-be star whose propensity for breaking out into show tunes and impressions dismays her daughter. Reynolds was also known as Princess Leia’s mother, after Carrie Fisher found fame in the Star Wars movies.
Aside from performing, Reynolds had many other interests. In 1991, she bought a hotel and casino in Las Vegas, where she displayed part of her extensive collection of vintage Hollywood props, sets and costumes. But after her third marriage to real-estate developer Richard Hamlett ended, she was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997. She later reopened her museum in Hollywood. Reynolds was also an indefatigable fund-raiser for The Thalians (a charitable organisation that provides mental health services from pediatrics to geriatrics in Los Angeles).
She is survived by her son, Todd Fisher and granddaughter, Billie Lourd.