Esther Williams got a lucky break in some respects last year when she fell down a dozen stairs in her Beverly Hills home and shattered her right ankle.
As she lay injured on a landing, looking up at a painting of herself in a swimsuit as the star of one of 26 movies she made from the early '40s to the late '50s, she said, "Well, MGM, you got all you could out of those legs."
The injury forced her to stay home for months and think, not so much about her heyday as MGM's "Million Dollar Mermaid," but about what she wanted to do once she healed.
The answer surprised her. More than 40 years since her last movie, at a time in life when most people take it easy, Williams has a new career.
She will work as co-producer with entrepreneur Daniel Flannery of "Aquaria," a $30-million Las Vegas water spectacle opening in 2003.
Williams, who will be honored Thursday by the California Design College as a trendsetter in film fashion, also will work with a fashion designer to create costumes for "Aquaria."
Williams says she was "a test pilot for swimsuits" when making movies. Her first starring movie, "Bathing Beauty" in 1944, launched a genre of film known as aqua musicals. MGM came up with the idea to compete with the successful 20th Century Fox films featuring ice skater Sonja Henie.
Today, Williams is enthusiastic about her input on "Aquaria" swimwear. "It's a different world than you dry people live in. There are fabrics I can't wait to try."
When she tries them, chances are it will be in her pool, although she calls it "a skinny-dipping pool, one in which you needn't wear a stitch."
Designing for "Aquaria," Williams will strive to get a nearly nude look in a suit for the swimmers, who will portray gods and goddesses in an adaptation of a Greek myth, which will also feature gymnasts and ice skaters as characters.
Part of the story will focus on water ballet and synchronized swimming, which Williams popularized almost as much as stylish swimsuits and backyard pools. After the war and a few of Williams' aqua musicals, there was a boom in the building of pools along with new housing, especially in Southern California.
Williams' pool in her Beverly Hills home of 28 years is not nearly the size of the one that was built for her in the '40s by MGM. That pool, which had a pedestal on a hydraulic lift used to raise the actress 50 feet out of the water in preparation for a dive, was 90 feet wide, 90 feet long and 25 feet deep.
"My pool is small, because you don't mess with topography," she said. Her house and pool are on a half-acre knoll.
"Yes, I still swim," she said. It's a question she is asked so much that she had business cards made up with that phrase. A daily swim has been, in fact, part of her physical therapy after her ankle injury.
Williams bought the house in 1973 with her then-husband, actor Fernando Lamas. They were married for about 20 years until he died in 1982.
Williams calls Lamas her only leading man who could swim. He was a swimming champion in Argentina before coming to Hollywood. He once said to her, "You don't realize that I am one of the five fastest men in the world." She replied, "I know that, but can you swim?"
The couple had lived together for several years before he suggested getting married. Williams agreed if Lamas would give up other women. He agreed if she would give up being Esther Williams, the star. "Fernando became synonymous with the word 'hiatus,' " she said.
They lived in Bel-Air before buying in Beverly Hills. "I told Fernando, in Bel-Air we had an Olympic-sized pool. Now we have an Olympic-sized view."
The house, which she describes as a villa, focuses on the pool, the large patio around it and the city-to-ocean view. On a clear day you can see Catalina Island, Baldwin Hills, Park La Brea and the Beverly Center.
On the patio are several chaise longues and patio tables with umbrellas as well as pots filled with geraniums, bougainvillea, roses and impatiens. The windows are covered with awnings.
"It has been a wonderful house," Williams said, "especially considering that we bought it for $140,000." She figures the home, built in 1963, is worth $2.5 million today.
When she moved there, actor Rock Hudson lived next door. Later, Hudson's house was purchased by director John Landis and then billionaire Paul Allen, who spent nearly three years building a tennis pavilion and recording studio on the neighboring property.
Williams frowns at the thought of the massive project but is philosophical. "There was nothing I could do about it."
Williams, who loves to cook dishes that are "good hot or cold like Chinese noodles," has remodeled her kitchen and turned a dog run into a 60-foot-long porch.
When adding a porch above the kitchen and laundry room, she cantilevered the addition because the ground was covered with decomposed granite. "I had visions of the house sliding down the hill, so I also had I-beams put under the living room," she explained.