To illustrate the word "survivor," editors of dictionaries would do well to use a photo of Debbie Reynolds. A star of some of the most indelible movie musicals produced by M-G-M during the golden age of Hollywood (Singin' in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, etc.), Reynolds also shone in dramatic and comedic films, persevering well beyond the death of the studio system as she knew it. She also kept her dignity throughout one of the biggest scandals of the 1950s: her desertion by her husband Eddie Fisher in favor of her friend Elizabeth Taylor. (Taylor later dumped Fisher for Richard Burton, but that's another story...)
Reynolds has moved past two subsequent, financially draining marriages through a combination of good sense, good humor, and unflagging energy. Though for a time she was primarily known to younger audiences as the mother of Carrie Fisher (who played Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, and went on to become a respected writer), Reynolds has of late been happily showcased in feature films (In and Out, Mother) and on television (Will and Grace, The Hollywood Squares). Now, she's bringing her quintessential club act to the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, for one night only (July 11). A week before the gig, I phoned the star at her home in North Hollywood for our TheaterMania interview.
TM: Hi, Miss Reynolds, I'm calling, from TheaterMania...
REYNOLDS: Hi, I'm on the other line. If you hang on, dear, I'll just be a minute. And don't listen to the horrible music; I don't know what that is. [She presses the hold button on her phone. I'm treated to about 45 seconds of raucous, static-filled rock music. Then she returns.] I'm back.
TM: Well, I don't know what that is, either--but it certainly isn't from an M-G-M musical.
REYNOLDS: I know! When I first got it set up and I started to put friends on hold, they all said, "What the hell is that?" I keep forgetting to tell my son to change it. I'm not mechanical, and I'm not very good at anything new as far as phones or computers. Haven't quite mastered those yet! I go out and do two or three shows every week; I was in Mississippi last week, and then I was in Boston and Virginia. So I don't have time to sit down and learn how to work the mouse.
TM: It's great to speak with you.
REYNOLDS: Oh, thanks, honey. I'm always happy when a young person calls.
TM: I'm not as young as you think I am, but I sure am a fan. I was lucky enough to get to see your show in Atlantic City a couple of years ago. Is that the same one you'll be doing at Paper Mill?
REYNOLDS: Yes, except I have a new medley--a Judy Garland tribute. I loved Judy. We were friends. She was the greatest.
TM: You may not be aware of this, and you probably don't get a dime from it, but they've re-released some of the albums you recorded for Dot in the '50s on Japanese imports.
REYNOLDS: You're right: I don't get a dime for any of that old stuff. Not even movies.
TM: Because there were no residuals in those days?
REYNOLDS: Well, that was the deal Ronald Reagan made--they don't have to pay residuals up to 1970. So everybody who did a movie after 1970 gets a lot of money for it, and everybody who did a movie before 1970 gets zip. It's really awful. Mickey Rooney has flown to Washington about it three or four times, and they just pay no attention to him.
TM: In your heyday, you were a star in several genres of film: musicals, comedies, dramas. You even did a western.
REYNOLDS: I was lucky because they let me do everything. I was able to act and not just be a bimbo or Little Miss Starlet. I did How the West Was Won at M-G-M, and different kinds of films at other studios. I produced and starred in What's the Matter With Helen? with Shelley Winters. That was a wonderful picture.
TM: Did you see yourself as excelling at one particular thing?
REYNOLDS: Musical comedy was what I always felt I was best in. But I started studying acting seriously when I was 28, for Mary, Mary. I really wasn't any good; in fact, I was going to quit the picture. I called up my drama coach and said, "I stink!" She said, "You do not. We're just going to work hard."
TM: You did it all in those days, and very successfully. You had a huge hit record with "Tammy," even though you weren't primarily a recording artist.
REYNOLDS: I'm sorry I didn't pursue that. A lot of the record companies fell apart, like Dot and Coral. I should have moved to Nashville and been a singing star, because they love you forever. They let you grow old, and you can just die on stage, like I want to do--only you can make some money doing it and not have to fight for work. If you're an older actress today, you just don't get work.
TM: I'm sure it's difficult; yet you have turned up in a number of high-profile movies and TV shows over the past few years.
REYNOLDS: I did Mother with Albert Brooks, and In and Out with Kevin Kline. And I've done three or four films for television. One of them, Gift of Love, was nominated for an Emmy. This August, I'll be making a new movie for NBC, with Shirley MacLaine; they're just firming up the deal now. My daughter [Carrie Fisher] wrote the movie, called These Old Broads. I think they're trying to get Joan Collins for it, also.
TM: Let's talk about your theatrical career. Though book musicals on stage were never your main focus, I know you've done some big shows regionally and on tour. And you did have two starring roles on Broadway, in Irene and Woman of the Year. What would it take to get you back to Broadway?
REYNOLDS: I'm considering a show called Comeback that Kander and Ebb wrote with George Furth. [Kander and Ebb] are busy right now with The Visit, the Angela Lansbury show, but it's possible that I will be back on Broadway next year in Comeback. I think the timing is right. And I think it's a good idea to do it while I'm still alive.
TM: Rather than post-mortem.
REYNOLDS: Yes. I wouldn't look good in that awful, ghoulish makeup. You know, "Prop her up, throw a light on her, and play a record!"
TM: You were very young when you started at M-G-M.
REYNOLDS: I was 16. Now, I'm 68. I keep myself in great shape. All of the girls that are still out there--Shirley MacLaine, Julie Andrews, myself--just love to perform. There's no reason to stop doing what you love.
TM: What was it like, at such an early age, to work with some of the most amazing film legends of all time?
REYNOLDS: It was a thrill to walk around the lot. Fred Astaire would be walking towards me with a lilt in his step; he wore a rope instead of a belt, and he'd have a towel around his neck because he was always coming from a rehearsal. He had such style! Then there'd be Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney--and Peter Lawford in his Cadillac convertible, with a surfboard in it. It was like a movie within a movie. All of the stars ate together in the commissary, in one big room; even Mr. Mayer was there, and all the executives. It was much more of a family then. Everybody knew each other, and we've all stayed friends to this day.
TM: Maybe you can give me a few words on some of the biggest stars you knew and worked with. Frank Sinatra?
REYNOLDS: Frank was wonderful to me when we made The Tender Trap. He called me "schveetie." He was a friend of Bogart's, and every weekend they'd go out on Bogie's boat and get smashed--all "the guys," you know. No women were allowed! The Rat Pack was originally Bogart and Frank, Sammy [Davis, Jr.], Joey Bishop, and a few others. They'd all go out on the boat and just have the best time in the whole world. Then Frank would come in on Monday morning feeling very bad, so you didn't talk to him on Monday. You could talk to him on Tuesday. Frank took me to lunch one day, after I became engaged to Eddie Fisher, and he said: "I don't know how to say this, but you just can't marry a singer. We're all bad boys." You can see how stupid I was--I didn't listen.
TM: You worked with two of the all-time greats, James Stewart and John Wayne, in How the West Was Won.
REYNOLDS: Jimmy Stewart was one of my favorites--sweet, funny, sincere. He was a great American, and a great soldier. John Wayne was another man's man; he liked to go out with the guys. But he would always do whatever favor you asked, for whatever charity. Even when he was dying of cancer, he came and did our charity ball for the Thalians.
TM: How about Gene Kelly?
REYNOLDS: He was like a teacher to me: very tough, but very gracious in sharing all his talents and making me really come off great in Singin' in the Rain. That was certainly not my doing. I was 18 years old. What did I know?
TM: Singin' in the Rain is one of the major classics of film history. While you were filming it, did you have any idea what it would become?
REYNOLDS: Well, I didn't, because I was just 18. You know, the movie wasn't a big hit when it first came out. It just did okay. Really, the kids from UCLA and the other colleges made it a classic. Whenever that movie ran, the young people of each era would vote it as their favorite.
TM: Who else were you close to during your years at M-G-M?
REYNOLDS: Marge and Gower Champion were great friends. Their children were the same ages as mine. Years later, Gower saved my life on Irene, which was just horrible on the road. Sir John Gielgud was directing. He had done opera in London, but never a musical. And Hugh Wheeler was writing the show; I called Joe Stein, who came in and replaced him. Gower came in to help, Peter Gennaro stayed on, and we brought in a good show--but I gave up all my points, all my ownership to do it.
TM: You know, Jane Powell [one of Reynolds' M-G-M co-stars, and her successor in Irene] is doing an Off-Broadway play right now. It's called Avow.
REYNOLDS: Good for her! The last time I talked to Janie--about six or seven years ago--she told me she was retired and was never going to work again. I was trying to get her to do something, but she said, "Debbie, you go ahead and knock your brains out. I just want to be a normal person, and do the things I've never been able to do."
TM: I guess she's had a change of heart.
REYNOLDS: Well, I'm delighted to hear it.
TM: I got to interview another of your M-G-M co-stars, Ann Miller, when she did Follies at Paper Mill. That was a treat.
REYNOLDS: Oh, she's a scream. She's Auntie Mame brought back. Ann has such vitality, and she loves everyone. She sings like Merman, and she dances like...herself! A wonderful talent and a wonderful human being.
TM: Earlier, you mentioned Shirley MacLaine. I've read that your Oscar-nominated role in the film of The Unsinkable Molly Brown almost went to her.
REYNOLDS: Yes. Shirley had a contract with Hal Wallis, and there was some kind of a dispute; M-G-M wouldn't use her because of a possible lawsuit. Chuck Walters, the director, didn't want me at all. He said, "You're too short for the part." So I used the old line that Helen Hayes used when she was up for Queen Victoria on Broadway: "How short is the part?"
TM: I found it ironic that, years later, Shirley MacLaine played you--or, rather, a fictionalized version of you--in Postcards from the Edge.
REYNOLDS: It's not me. Carrie [Fisher] wrote it--that's the only reason people relate the part to me. It's actually been a thorn in my side. I tell people, "If I was a drunk, I don't know how I would have worked for 51 years and missed only one or two shows in all that time." I thought Carrie wrote it well and Shirley played it well, but it's not me. In fact, I would have liked to play the part. I tried to get an audition, but [director] Mike Nichols said, "No. People will think you're playing yourself, because your daughter wrote it."
TM: Are there any parts that got away--things you wanted to do, but weren't given the opportunity? Or things you turned down?
REYNOLDS: At our age, I don't think anybody turns any work down! You try to find roles, but they don't write them for older people. These Old Broads should have been made as a feature, but they say that features with an older cast don't sell. That's the way the executives think today, because they're all 27.
TM: I'm sure I don't have to tell you that Follies is coming back to Broadway. You'd be perfect for the "I'm Still Here" role.
REYNOLDS: Nobody has called me about that. I think I'd really rather do Comeback, anyway.
TM: Some of your recent work has been very gay friendly--I'm thinking of In and Out and Will and Grace. Homosexuality was a subject that wasn't even addressed by Hollywood in the '50s...
REYNOLDS: No, it was closeted. But almost all of my dates in those days were gay men. I preferred them because they were so polite; I never knew that they couldn't have cared less, that they all had boyfriends at home! We were required to go to premieres and parties, and those guys were always the best dancers and the most gentlemanly. Through the years, so many of my pals have been gay. Wonderful, loving people. You know, I did the first AIDS benefit, in San Francisco. And we did one at the Hollywood Bowl--Shirley MacLaine, Joan Rivers, and myself--before anybody else would get involved. People were scared to death because they lacked knowledge. I just do what I think is right. With a plague of that sort, you have to jump right in and help.
TM: It's great that you have the energy to give to causes like that. You work almost constantly, and you look fantastic.
REYNOLDS: I think energy is all about doing what you love. And I love show business. It's so much fun, you meet fabulous people, you travel. I'm very happy.
TM: What's the status of the Hollywood museum you had in Las Vegas?
REYNOLDS: It's all gone. I lost everything--about $12 million. I went into bankruptcy thanks to the mismanagement of my husband at the time. I divorced him because of it.
TM: Do you mean Harry Karl?
REYNOLDS: No, that husband drove me into a $30 million loss. I'm talking about Richard Hamlet.
TM: I'm sorry, Richard...
REYNOLDS: Hamlet. Like Shakespeare.
TM: I don't know anything about that person.
REYNOLDS: I wish I hadn't! It was my third marriage, and that's the end of that. Three strikes and you're out.
TM: What became of the holdings of your museum?
REYNOLDS: Well, I have all the costumes. They're in storage now, sad to say. My son Todd [Fisher] and I are working very hard to have a new museum, in Hollywood.
TM: Where are you from originally, Miss Reynolds?
REYNOLDS: I was born in El Paso, Texas. My daddy moved us to Burbank, California when I was six or seven years old. I became Miss Burbank of 1948. I did a screen test, and that led to The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady for Warner Bros. Then I went to M-G-M in '49 and did Three Little Words.
TM: If the movies hadn't come along for you, and you had remained Mary Frances Reynolds, what do you think you would have ended up doing?
REYNOLDS: I would have been a gym teacher in Burbank somewhere. Really! That's what I was studying--to teach gymnastics. I would have liked that very much, and I would have been good at it.
TM: But it's not an overstatement to say that millions of people are happier because you went into show business. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
REYNOLDS: Well, thank you, dear. You're a real sweet boy, and I appreciate the fact that you had some good questions. You knew me.
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The young Debbie
Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain
Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly in Singin' in the Rain