Debbie (Mary Frances) Reynolds was born April 1, 1932 in El Paso, Texas to Raymond Francis and Maxine N. Harmon Reynolds. Raymond had been born in 1903 in Whitewright, Grayson County, Texas. His father was a rural school teacher in 1910. By 1920, Raymond’s father was working in the Post Office and the family lived in Dallas. As of 1930, Raymond and Maxine had married and were living with Maxine’s family in El Paso. Raymond was working as a carpenter for a railroad company. That same year, their eldest son William Owen Reynolds was born to Raymond and Maxine, followed by Mary Frances (likely named for Raymond’s sister) in 1932. Raymond lost his job in Texas during the Depression. Reynolds was not embarrassed by her humble upbringing. She would say of their life in El Paso that her mother took in washing and that they always had plenty to eat, even if her father had to go out in the desert and shoot rabbits. By 1940, the new family had moved to Burbank, California where Raymond was working as a “tinder man” for Southern Pacific.
Mary Frances had participated in some beauty pageants (winning the Miss Burbank contest) and was noticed and signed by a Warner Brothers film scout. Jack Warner of Warner Brothers is said to have given her the stage name of Debbie. Her first film appearance was in 1948, when she had an uncredited part in a film named “June Bride” along side Bette Davis, Robert Montgomery and others.
Reynolds and Kelly in “Singin’ In The Rain” (Image credit: ABC News)
Her big break in film, “Singin’ In The Rain” was actually her sixth project, and was released in 1952. Co-directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, it starred Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Jean Hagen, Reynolds, Rita Moreno (only slightly older than Reynolds), Texas-born Cyd Charisse and others. The work is “a film about a film” in which upstart Kathy Selden (Reynolds) wins the heart of Don Lockwood (Kelly). Early in the film, Reynolds literally bursts out of a cake. Reynolds’ fresh face, charming on screen manner and ease in front of the camera worked well for her. A few years later, she had a starring role in the 1957 film “Tammy and the Bachelor” in which she appeared alongside Leslie Nielson, Walter Brennan, Fay Wray and others. In it, Reynold’s character rescues Nielson’s character after a plane crash. The two separate after Nielson’s character recovers, but eventually romance ensues. Reynolds also recorded a number one record, “Tammy” that is associated with the film. The song, written by Jay Livington and Ray Evans, took on something of a life of its own. It was so successful that producer (and future record executive) Berry Gordy reportedly wanted to name a record label after it. That name was taken, so he called it “Tamla” instead. The film was considered to be a success and led to two sequels, though not involving Reynolds. Singer and actress Sandra Dee is well known for playing the character Tammy in the sequels, but the role was “birthed” by Reynolds.
Reynolds went on to make a steady stream of films, including “The Pleasure of His Company” with Tony Curtis and Fred Astaire and even a couple of westerns, including the 1961 blockbuster “How the West Was Won.” In 1964, she had a starring role in “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” about the Titanic survivor of the same name, followed by “Goodbye Charlie” the same year, and 1967’s “Divorce American Style,” also stocked with familiar screen actors, Dick Van Dyke, Jason Robards, Jean Simmons, Van Johnson and others.
After many more films, in 1969, she appeared in 26 episodes of “The Debbie Reynolds Show.” Over the years, Reynolds made many television appearances, but this show bore her name. It was somewhat in the style of the series that had starred Lucile Ball, and had the same writer, but it did not last beyond 1970. The show was not cancelled due to ratings, however. According to an Associated Press news report, Reynolds walked out after the network ran a Pall Mall cigarette commercial over her objections. Later that year, of course, Congress banned cigarette advertising from radio and television programs.
After the television project Reynolds did a number of stage productions in Las Vegas, on Broadway and a memorable touring production of “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” On Broadway, her credits include”Irene,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Woman of the Year.” She was nominated for a Tony Award and won the Outer Critic’s Circle award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical in 1973 for her work in “Irene.” She received an honorary Oscar in 2015 for her body of film work and it was presented to her by her daughter Carrie.
Reynolds had married singer Eddie Fisher in 1955. The couple had two children: Carrie Fisher and Todd Fisher. The union lasted until their divorce in 1959 after Eddie Fisher was romantically linked with (and later married) Elizabeth Taylor after the death of Taylor’s husband Mike Todd in an airplane crash. Debbie was married in 1960 to Harry Karl, a shoe company executive, and the couple remained married for about fifteen years. In 1985, she married Richard Hamlett and the couple was married until 1996.
Todd Fisher has had a long career in the film, hotel, museum and casino businesses. Carrie Fisher became an actress, probably best known for her work in the “Star Wars” films. Carrie died unexpectedly at the age of sixty on December 27, 2016. The following day, Debbie was at Todd’s home, and was thought to have been planning the funeral with Todd and his family. Debbie suffered a stroke and was taken to a hospital, where she was treated but later died. After her funeral Debbie was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in California.
© 2020, all rights reserved.