Few would argue with the opinion that American entertainer Fred Astaire was the greatest dancer ever seen on film. Born to a wealthy Omaha family, young Astaire was trained at the Alvienne School of Dance and the Ned Wayburn School of Dancing. In a double act with his sister Adele, Fred danced in cabarets, vaudeville houses, and music halls all over the world before he was 20. The Astaires reportedly made their film bow in a 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle, same year of their first major Broadway success, Over the Top. The two headlined one New York stage hit after another in the 1920s, their grace and sophistication spilling into their social life, in which they hobnobbed with literary and theatrical giants, as well as millionaires and European royalty. When Adele married the British Lord Charles Cavendish in 1931, Fred found himself soloing for the first time in his life.
As with many other Broadway luminaries, Astaire was beckoned to Hollywood, where legend has it his first screen test was dismissed with "Can't act; slightly bald; can dance a little." He danced more than a little in his first film, Dancing Lady (1933), though he didn't actually play a role and was confined to the production numbers. Later that year, Astaire was cast as comic/dancing relief in the RKO musical Flying Down to Rio, which top-billed Dolores Del Rio and Gene Raymond. Astaire was billed fifth, just below the film's female comedy relief Ginger Rogers. Spending most of the picture trading wisecracks while the "real" stars wooed each other, Astaire and Rogers did a very brief dance during a production number called "The Carioca." As it turned out, Flying Down to Rio was an enormous moneymaker -- in fact, it was the film that saved the studio from receivership. Fans of the film besieged the studio with demands to see more of those two funny people who danced in the middle of the picture. RKO complied with 1934's The Gay Divorcee, based on one of Astaire's Broadway hits. Supporting no one this time, Fred and Ginger were the whole show as they sang and danced their way through such Cole Porter hits as "Night and Day" and the Oscar-winning "The Continental."
Astaire and Rogers were fast friends, but both yearned to be appreciated as individuals rather than a part of a team. After six films with Rogers, Astaire finally got a chance to work as a single in Damsel in Distress (1937), which, despite a superb George Gershwin score and top-notch supporting cast, was a box-office disappointment, leading RKO to re-team him with Rogers in Carefree (1938). After The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939), Astaire decided to go solo again, and, after a few secondary films, he found the person he would later insist was his favorite female co-star, Rita Hayworth, with whom he appeared in You'll Never Get Rich (1942) and You Were Never Lovelier (1946). Other partners followed, including Lucille Bremer, Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, Jane Powell, Cyd Charisse, and Barrie Chase, but, in the minds of moviegoers, Astaire would forever be linked with Ginger Rogers -- even though a re-teaming in The Barkeleys of Broadway (1949) seemed to prove how much they didn't need each other.
Astaire set himself apart from other musical performers by insisting that he be photographed full-figure, rather than have his numbers "improved" by tricky camera techniques or unnecessary close-ups. And unlike certain venerable performers who found a specialty early in life and never varied from it, Astaire's dancing matured with him. He was in his fifties in such films as The Band Wagon (1953) and Funny Face (1957), but he had adapted his style so that he neither drew attention to his age nor tried to pretend to be any younger than he was. Perhaps his most distinctive characteristic was making it look so easy. One seldom got the impression that Astaire worked hard to get his effects, although, of course, he did. To the audience, it seemed as though he was doing it for the first time and making it up as he went along.
With the exceptions of his multi-Emmy-award-winning television specials of the late '50s and early '60s, Astaire cut down on his dancing in the latter stages of his career to concentrate on straight acting. While he was superb as a troubled, suicidal scientist in On the Beach (1959) and was nominated for an Oscar for his work in The Towering Inferno (1974), few of his later films took full advantage of his acting abilities. (By 1976, he was appearing in such films as The Amazing Dobermans.) In 1981, more than a decade after he last danced in public, Astaire was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. While this award was usually bestowed upon personalities who had no work left in them, Astaire remained busy as an actor almost until his death in 1987. The same year as his AFI prize, Astaire joined fellow show business veterans Melvyn Douglas, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and John Houseman in the movie thriller Ghost Story.