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Gene Kelly Dies; Legendary Dancer Was 83

February 03, 1996|SCOTT HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Gene Kelly, the exuberant, charismatic hoofer who danced, sang, smiled and splashed his way into the hearts of generations, died Friday after several years of declining health. He was 83.

As respected as he was likable, Kelly "died peacefully in his sleep" in his Beverly Hills home with his wife, Patricia, at his bedside, according to his publicist, Warren Cowan. Kelly had suffered strokes in 1994 and 1995 and had been in ill health since then.

His life was the stuff of a Hollywood musical. Kelly was a would-be baseball player and failed law student who once made money teaching basic dance steps in the basement of his parents' Pennsylvania home. After a few Depression-era amateur contests, he conquered Broadway and then Hollywood, starring in such films as "Singin' in the Rain," "On the Town" and "An American in Paris." Along the way, he revolutionized motion picture choreography and achieved success as a director and producer as well.

Debbie Reynolds, who co-starred in "Singin' in the Rain," remembered Kelly on Friday as "a great dancer . . . a cinematic genius [whose] work will influence films forever."

"He made me a star," she said after hearing news of his death. "He taught me how to dance and how to work hard, to be dedicated and yet still loving, as he was to his family and friends."

Charles Champlin, former arts editor of The Times, called Kelly's classic swing around a lamppost in the film with Reynolds "the high point of solo screen dancing . . . an absolute masterpiece of the dance form."

Judy Garland, in 1942, was Kelly's first dance partner on the big screen. Later came Fred Astaire, Rita Hayworth, Frank Sinatra, Leslie Caron, Reynolds, Donald O'Connor, Shirley MacLaine and many others.

But of all Kelly's dance partners, none was more memorable than an umbrella.

"Singin' in the Rain," the beloved, campy 1952 Hollywood spoof with Reynolds and O'Connor, provides the lasting image of Kelly's winning screen persona: an affable, optimistic man with a crooked Irish grin and soft spot in his heart. Often called the best musical ever made, the film also showcased Kelly as a virile heartthrob, opposite the leggy Cyd Charisse in the sultry "Broadway Ballet." Another classic number from that film--"Gotta Dance"--said much about the man.

"At 14 I discovered girls," Kelly told his entertainment peers when the American Film Institute honored him with its life achievement award in 1985. "At that time dancing was the only way you could put your arm around the girl. Dancing was courtship.

"Only later did I discover that you dance joy. You dance love. You dance dreams."

Kelly's most memorable credits show a pattern of American archetypes: Runyonesque entertainers, sailors on leave, and an expatriate artist in love with a French girl. Kelly also won praise for straight drama, such as his portrayal of a glib, cynical newspaperman based on the legendary H.L. Mencken in "Inherit the Wind," the 1960 film with Spencer Tracy and Fredric March.

Unlike Astaire, the older friend with whom Kelly was frequently compared, top hat and tails were not his style. Rather, Kelly, who stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 165 pounds, presented the dancer as the common man--a regular guy who looked good in a sailor's uniform, or all wet, stomping in a puddle and splashing a beat cop. Most typically, his screen image was casual: sport shirts and slacks, with white socks to draw attention to those dazzling feet.

For all the casualness, Kelly was a serious student and teacher of his art.

"My own style [of dance] is strong, wide open, bravura," Kelly said in a 1969 interview. "I tried to base it all on male movements, athletic movements.

"I wanted to do new things with dance, adapt it to the motion picture medium. Once I broke the ice, they let me do pretty much what I wanted."

Born in Pittsburgh on Aug. 23, 1912, Eugene Curran Kelly was the middle of five children of Irish Catholic parents. They had a faint trace of show business in their blood: his father sold gramophones and his mother acted with a local stock company. It was his mother who insisted that 8-year-old Eugene take dancing lessons.

"My mother sent my brother and me to dancing school in those Buster Brown collars, and we had a minimum of three fights every week walking between our house and the school," Kelly once said. "The funny thing is that nobody called us sissies when we served Mass in those collars, only when we went to dancing school."

*

After a year of lessons, young Gene persuaded his mother to let him play ball instead. In high school he was a four-sport star--baseball, football, hockey and gymnastics--but he also discovered that dancing impressed the girls.

"I was a little short then and looking back I can see it was pure self-aggrandizement," Kelly once said. "I wanted everybody to say, 'Gee, he's clever.' And they did, too. It worked. I'd do a buck-and-wing"--a style of tap dance where the legs fly out to the side--"and they all thought it was nifty. But I hated it at the time."

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