Debbie was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932 in El Paso, Texas to Raymond Francis Reynolds, a railroad mechanic and carpenter, and his wife Maxene Harman Reynolds. The family had little money, and when her father lost his job at the height of the Great Depression, little Mary Frances, her parents and her older brother William moved in with Maxene's parents and their four boys. Living hand-to-mouth while her parents and grandparents struggled to provide, "Sis" (as she was called) was a complete and utter tomboy. A role which would come in handy in later years when she would drudge up memories or wrestling her brothers and Uncle to the floor, or out running them from hill to hill in her triumphant performance as “Molly Brown”.
In 1939, Raymond Reynolds moved to southern California to take a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and in December of that year, his wife and children followed, setting up house in Glendale before building a house in Burbank about a year later.
Somewhat of a class clown and a comic cut-up in her own family, Mary Frances developed a talent for lip-syncing and imitating radio comedians which she frequently used to entertain her friends and family all the time visiting local movie houses, and idolizing her favorite star: Betty Hutton.
Then, on a whim in 1948, she entered and won the local "Miss Burbank" beauty pageant (for which she fulfilled the "talent" requirement by lip-syncing to a record of Betty Hutton singing "I'm a Square in the Social Circle"), talent scouts for both Warner Bros. and MGM recognized her film potential. Reportedly on the toss of a coin, the Warners scout won the right to give Mary Frances a screen test, and shortly thereafter, at the age of 16, she was put under contract to the studio at a salary of $65 per week. To her dismay, studio head Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, and she was required to attend school for three hours a day on the Warners lot.
Finally in the fall of 1948, Debbie was cast as a teenage extra in the Bette Davis - Robert Montgomery vehicle "June Bride", after which the studio exercised its option to put her contract on hiatus. Reynold’s performance here is a bit awkward and stilted, but pit against the indomitable Bette Davis, it comes across as pure fear in the film.
“She scared the hell out of me.” She later said about Bette.
Early in 1949, Debbie was given a speaking part in “The Daughter Of Rosie O’Grady” , playing June Haver's little sister. Despite her complementary comic turn in the picture, Warners decided they had little use for an ingénue of Debbie's age and inexperience, so when MGM expressed an interest in her, Warner Bros. declined to pick up their next six-month option on Debbie's contract. Under a one-picture deal with MGM, Debbie finished out the year appearing as Helen Kane in the studio's musical biopic “Three Little Words” starring Fred Astaire and Red Skelton.
Then, in 1950, Debbie was cast as Jane Powell's spirited younger sister in "Two Weeks Of Love". Debbie's undaunted energy and wide-eyed delivery of such light-hearted songs as "Aba Daba Honeymoon" and "Row, Row, Row" (both with Carleton Carpenter), breathed noticeable life into the turn-of-the-century musical romance, and she essentially came away as, if not the star of the picture, at least its brightest spot. It began to be more apparent that Debbie did indeed have the “little something extra”.
After another small turn in a small role in “Mr.. Imperium” starring Lana Turner and Ezio Pinza, in 1951, studio head Louis B. Mayer cast her alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor in what was to become her most famous film, “Singin' In The Rain”
This is of course, one of the Granddaddies of all musicals. Reynolds was out danced by both Kelly and O’Conner, and with a star turn by prima Diva Cyd Charrisse, Reynolds could have easily been swallowed up. However, she wasn’t. Debbie’s airy and bubbly quality came through on screen, and even though her love scenes still seems a bit off, she proved she was not just a forgettable side kick. She could definitely handle leading roles.
Contrary to what we believe today, the picture. though a commercial success, did not charm critics upon its initial release, many of whom compared it to Kelly's Oscar-winning triumph of the previous year, “An American In Paris” . It wasn’t until many years later the filmed gained its notoriety, and became the classic as we finally know it.
Debbie then spent most of the next three years co-starring in a series of second-string MGM musicals and light comedies. Varying in the quality of their scripts and musical attributes, but with the weight of MGM behind them, films such as "Give a Girl a Break" and "Hit the Deck" demonstrated that even without the dancing talent of Ann Miller or Marge Champion, or a lilting soprano like that of Jane Powell, Debbie, by virtue of her energy, could infect a waning picture with the sheer force of her personality and invite the audience to enjoy the film, whatever its other shortcomings.
And reigning supreme among her comedies, “The Tender Trap” showcased just how engaging a character Debbie could create when provided with quality source material, good direction and a talented supporting cast.
In 1956, Debbie's stellar performance in Richard Brooks' domestic drama “The Catered Affair” proved that, given these same resources, Debbie could also handle dramatic material. In direct opposition to the energy and vitality she brought to her musical and comedic roles, Debbie's toned-down, genuine and thoughtful performance gave indications of a broader acting talent waiting to be tapped. Her performance here is really remarkable.
Unfortunately for Debbie, her musical comedy skills were of greater commercial value to MGM than her dramatic potential, and the studio returned her to more familiar ground.
By the mid-1950s, Debbie had become one of Hollywood's most popular female stars, so when she began a romance with teen television idol and pop singing sensation Eddie Fisher, the relationship became favored fodder of the fan magazines and Hollywood gossip columns. The two finally married in the fall of 1955, and "America's Sweethearts" set up house in Hollywood where Fisher hoped to begin a film career. About that same time however, the studio system began to disintegrate.
In 1956 Debbie appeared opposite husband Eddie Fisher in his screen debut, “Bundle of Joy” for RKO, and after giving birth to a daughter, Carrie Fisher, was loaned to Universal to appear in one of her biggest hits to date, Tammy and the Bachelor in 1957. Both films proved enormous commercial successes, and Debbie even found herself with a hit single when "Tammy," spent five weeks at number one on the Billboard Chart.
In 1958, shortly after Debbie gave birth to her son, Todd Emmanuel, on February 24, movie producer Mike Todd, Fisher's best friend and husband of Debbie's fellow MGM contract star Elizabeth Taylor, was killed in an airplane crash. Fisher's efforts to console Todd's grieving widow lead to a very public affair, and by the fall of 1958, the Reynolds-Fisher-Taylor love triangle had become one of the most publicized romantic scandals in Hollywood history. It made the Brad-Angelina-Jennifer tryst look like a summer day at a kid’s camp.
After filing for divorce from Fisher, Debbie negotiated a release from her contract with MGM, in hopes that working as a freelance artist would prove more profitable to her personally and help her achieve some financial independence. The day after her divorce from Fisher became final, he married Taylor, and thanks in large part to public sympathy for her as an already-popular star and now "wronged wife" and mother of two small children, Debbie's next few pictures did exceedingly well at the box-office, despite their artistic short-comings.
In 1959, Debbie became one of the top ten box-office stars of the year, placing fifth in the Quigley Exhibitor's Poll of Box-Office Champions behind Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. In 1960, Debbie formed her own company, Harman Productions, and signed a three-year, $1 million deal with ABC to produce a series of yearly television specials, the first of which, "A Date with Debbie" aired on October 27.
In November 1960, Debbie married millionaire shoe store magnate Harry Karl and tried to establish a normal family life for herself and her two children in Beverly Hills, all the while doggedly pursuing her film career which, though inconsistently up and down, slowly began to decline as she outgrew her ingénue screen persona and was unable to replace it with a more-mature, sophisticated Doris Day-like image. However, in 1962 she found critical popularity of the MGM/Cinerama's historical western epic “How the West Was Won” to which Debbie contributed an important human element. The film, beautifully shot, gave Debbie another chance to show off her acting chops, which were by now, sharp as a tack.
“I didn’t take myself very seriously. I still don’t, I guess. But I do take the craft of acting seriously. It took me a while to figure that out and to know that going to an acting class didn’t mean I was a failure as an actress.”
Then, in 1964 she managed to revive her career with a tour-de-force, Oscar-nominated performance in MGM's widescreen musical adaptation of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, a critical triumph for Debbie and one of the year's biggest money-makers. This is really a phenomenal performance. She does everything here, sings, dances, and is in every scene of the movie….telling the truth. Watching Reynolds go from small boy/child (as her youth had readied her for) to sophisticated, Titanic survivor and lone world traveler is marvelous. No one does this better than Debbie.
Debbie next focused her attention on television, signing on with NBC to do a comedy series "The Debbie Reynolds Show" which debuted to little critical fanfare on September 16, 1969. She did however receive an Emmy Nomination for Best Actress in a comedy. I remember the show. I remember how funny she was and how much like the old “I Love Lucy” episodes her show seemed to be. Later I learned, it was Ball who had a hand at helping Debbie out with various writers on the DesiLu lot.
After a contract dispute between Debbie and NBC over sponsorship of the show, the series was eventually cancelled in 1970, and Debbie briefly returned to film in the camp horror movie “What’s The Matter With Helen?” co-starring Shelley Winters. This is actually one of my favorite old horror movies. Following in the footsteps of most old Hollywood Grand Dames, Debbie was attempting to capitalize on the Davis/Crawford vehicle “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” The film didn’t have near the same bite. But watching Winters and Reynolds together playing to spinsters running a dance school, and the slow demise of Shelly’s poor, little brain is delightful. The last 10 minutes of this movie are truly frightening; with an image of Reynolds that haunts me to this day.
In 1973, she filed for divorce from Karl and, finding herself in debt, signed a one-year contract to make her Broadway debut as the title character in a revival of the 1919 musical hit Irene. After a somewhat troubled beginning, Irene eventually became the toast of Broadway, and Debbie won the Outer Critics' Circle Award for Best Actress in a Musical in 1974.
After Irene, Debbie returned to Las Vegas where she spent most of the remainder of the decade when she wasn't making television appearances, fundraising for The Thalians (a charity benefiting emotionally disturbed children), starring in a West Coast revival of “Annie Get Your Gun”, or touring live in a series of special performances in London (at the Palladium in 1975) and Australia.
In 1981, Debbie starred in another short-lived television comedy series, "Aloha Paradise," this time for ABC, and though it didn't last, she continued to play occasional guest roles on other network series including "Alice," "The Love Boat" and "Jennifer Slept Here." In 1982, she briefly returned to Broadway to replace Raquel Welch (who had replaced Lauren Bacall) in Woman of the Year, and the following year, Debbie produced a highly successful exercise video entitled "Do It Debbie's Way."
In 1984, Debbie married her third husband, Virginia real estate developer Richard Hamlett, and in 1988 her autobiography Debbie: My Life was published, much of it written in response to Eddie Fisher's recollections of Debbie and their marriage in his own 1981 autobiography.
The following year, Debbie and Harve Presnell toured the United States in a revival of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and after years of performing in Las Vegas, Debbie finally purchased a casino of her own in 1991, where she displayed part of her extensive collection of vintage Hollywood props, sets and costumes (many bought from a giant MGM auction in 1970) and also continued to perform. Her marriage to Hamlett ended in divorce in 1994, and when the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino fell on hard times, Debbie was forced to declare bankruptcy in 1997.
Debbie revived her film career once more in the mid-1990s, earning a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in Albert Brooks' “Mother”. This is probably one of the best performances of her career to date. Nuanced, low key, and understated, this character is at once sweet and docile, and yet burning underneath with a slow simmer. When Albert Brook’s character paws through a shoe box in his mom’s closet, and she comes home to find him holding some of her personal notes and stories, there’s an explosion of quiet, seething rage. Her work here is meticulous. I’m still at a loss as to why she wasn’t at least nominated for an Oscar.
Subsequent appearances in “In and Out” and “Zack and Reba” rounded out the 90’s.
In 2001, she starred with Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor in the made-for-TV movie "These Old Broads." Interesting when you think MacLaine portrayed in image of her in a brilliant movie (Postcards from the Edge) written by Reynold’s daughter Carrie, and lost one of her husbands to Taylor decades before. The film was a joy to see these old pros together, but really, the only thing that held it together was the women. The writer should have been shot. They deserved much better.
Debbie continues to make live stage appearances in Las Vegas and across the United States, and has played a recurring role on NBC's hit sitcom "Will and Grace" since 1999. A hilarious upside down caricature of who she really is on the inside.
Another of the many pursuits which keep Debbie busy is her Hollywood Motion Picture Collection which received a gift of 20,000 square feet of space in the new "Hollywood and Highland" economic development area near Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood which Debbie will use to display part of her extensive classic movie costume collection.
-She appeared as Dan's mother, fresh out of the mental ward, during an episode of the sitcom "Roseanne". When she later appeared on Roseanne's talk show, she revealed that during the filming of that episode, while she and Roseanne were wrestling in the back yard, Roseanne, quite unknowingly, accidentally broke one of her ribs.
-In 1984, with friends like Shelley Winters and Terry Moore, she made a rather restrained exercise video for "women of a certain age".
-Ex-mother-in-law of Paul Simon.
-In 1975, she sold the Beverly Hills mansion that she had lived in with Harry Karl. The house was reputed to be worth over $1,000,000. The buyer was Jim Randall, an industrialist who made aircraft rivets. When he married actress Marisa Berenson, the wedding was held in the redecorated home and his best man was his friend George Hamilton.
-Considers herself a "movie-oholic" and has an extensive collection of memorabilia, with over 4,000 costumes from the silent screen period to the 1970s. She has been known to gather posters from her collection of 3,000 and drive to homes of actor pals for autographs. In the 1990s she turned her collection into a Las Vegas movie museum, but had to shut it down in 1997 because of financial problems. Recently she has looked into the possibility of opening up a hall of fame museum in Hollywood near Grauman's Chinese Theatre.
-At one particularly low point in her career, she confessed to literally living in her car, a Cadillac.
-April 2002: Opened the Hollywood Motion Picture Collection near the new Kodak Theatre. The collection, which was collected and preserved primarily by Reynolds herself, features over 3,000 costumes including Carmen Miranda's turbans, a pair of Judy Garland's ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, John Wayne's guns and Marilyn Monroe's windswept dress from The Seven Year Itch.
-In one of her guest appearances on "Will & Grace", she enters a room humming a bit of "Good Morning", which was a song she sang in her most famous musical, Singin' in the Rain.
-Had planned to go into the education field (teaching physical education) before she won the Miss Burbank contest.
-While wanting to be in show-business, Reynolds' family Nazarene church forbade acting. However, Reynolds' father saw her talent and gave his support, seeing it as a means of paying Debbie's college costs. Reynolds' mother then gave her support knowing that there is no evil going on in her movies. Reynolds' mother knew her daughter had talent, but couldn't understand why it was happening to her own daughter.
I never missed a Debbie Reynolds movie when it came on TV. She wasn’t Hepburn, she wasn’t Davis, and she wasn’t Marilyn Monroe. But I don’t think she tried to be any of those things. She was a movie star who rose to become a legend, by sheer hard work and determination. She also became a wonderful actress. She never bored me. She never did the same thing twice. And she had that thing that you can’t learn, teach, or ask someone to do on cue: She Had “It”. And she still does.