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Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds Dies at 84

Debbie Reynolds, who starred alongside Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain and became a major movie star during Hollywood’s Golden Age, died Wednesday. She was 84.

Reynolds had been rushed to Cedars-Sinai hospital Wednesday afternoon after she reportedly suffered a stroke.

Her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, died Tuesday after suffering a heart attack on Friday.

Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, told Variety that his mother said she had “wanted to be with Carrie.” She had reportedly been planning her daughter’s funeral at Fisher’s home when she was hospitalized.

On Sunday, Reynolds thanked her daughter’s well-wishers in a post on her social media account.

“Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter,” she wrote. “I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop.”

Reynolds was one of the last great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age and its “studio system.” Her first role in a major film was a small musical part in 1950’s Three Little Words starring Fred Astaire, but she shot to fame two years later at 19 years old, when she starred alongside Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in the classic musical Singin’ in the Rain, despite having never danced professionally before.

Other film roles quickly followed, including in The Affair of Dobie Gillis, Susan Slept Here and 1955’s The Tender Trap, in which she starred alongside Frank Sinatra. In 1956, Reynolds co-starred with then-husband Eddie Fisher in the film Bundle of Joy.

Her role as the title character in 1957’s Tammy and the Bachelor including a scene singing the song “Tammy,” which became the No. 1 hit song that year.

In 1964, Reynolds was nominated for both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her title role in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. She appeared in more than 30 movies, mostly musicals and romantic comedies, between 1950 and 1967.

In 2015, the Screen Actors Guild awarded Reynolds its Lifetime Achievement Award. She was also awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 2015, but could not accept the award due to a long recovery from surgery; her granddaughter, Billie Lourd, accepted the award in her honor.

Reynolds also had a prolific singing career; her hit “Tammy,” from the 1957 movie Tammy and the Bachelor, became one of the year’s bestselling records, and she also had hit songs in the late 1950s with “A Very Special Love” and “Am I That Easy to Forget.”

Reynolds found herself at the center of one Hollywood’s biggest scandals when, in 1959, her husband, pop singer Eddie Fisher, had an affair with her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. The two later divorced, and Reynolds ultimately re-married twice.

Mary Frances Reynolds was born April 1, 1932 in El Paso, Texas, to parents Maxine and Raymond Francis Reynolds. She moved with her family to Burbank, California, at age 8, and later attended Burbank High School, where she became noticed after winning the Miss Burbank pageant in 1948.

“We were very poor and I entered a talent contest as a young teenager because if you entered, even if you didn’t win, they gave you a free blouse,” she told UK paper the Telegraph in 2010. “I entered and there were talent scouts there and they changed my name to Debbie and I was given a film contract. So in 1949 I started a new life, and that was when I entered the fast lane.”

She was just 19 years old when she was cast in MGM’s Singin’ in the Rain, widely considered one of the greatest movie musicals ever made. Reynolds, who had never danced professionally before and had very limited dance training, found her co-star Gene Kelly a strict teacher and a perfectionist. She wrote in her 1988 autobiography Debbie about training so hard for the role that her feet bled. She recounted how one day, after being upset by a particularly grueling rehearsal, she got a pep talk from Fred Astaire, who allowed her to watch him rehearse a dance routine to let her know that she wasn’t alone in finding it hard work.

Singin’ in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life,” she wrote in her autobiography.

In 1955, the actress married singer Eddie Fisher, and the couple had two children, Carrie and Todd Fisher. But the marriage didn’t last, as Fisher left her for her close friend Elizabeth Taylor in 1959 in what became one of Hollywood’s most notorious scandals. Reynolds re-married twice; first to businessman Harry Karl from 1960 to 1973, and then to real estate developer Richard Hamlett from 1984 to 1996.

Reynolds got her own sitcom, The Debbie Reynolds Show, in 1969, but the show lasted just one season after she objected to the network airing cigarette advertisements during commercial breaks.

In 1973, Reynolds earned a Tony Award nomination for her starring role in the Broadway revival of Irene. She would go on to appear in Annie Get Your Gun in 1977 and filled in for Raquel Welch on Broadway in 1983’s Woman of the Year. In 1989, she reprised the role of Molly Brown in a stage adaptation of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

In the 1970s, Reynolds began performing at nightclubs in Las Vegas and would often hang out with members of the Rat Pack.

“All they did was have a good time,” she told the Telegraph.”We’d get off work at two in the morning and hang out at a club and listen to other performers. I loved Frank Sinatra. If he liked you it was forever, and if he disliked you—I wouldn’t want to be there.”

The actress became an avid collector of Hollywood memorabilia before it was a widespread practice. When MGM decided to sell off its warehouses full of props and costumes in 1970, Reynolds reportedly attended the auctions for five weeks, snapping up items.

In 1995, she opened a museum featuring her legendary collection, which reportedly included Marilyn Monroe’s white dress from The Seven Year Itch, Gene Kelly’s dancing shoes and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. The Las Vegas-based museum declared bankruptcy in 2009 and Reynolds was forced to sell most of the collection.

Reynolds’s relationship with her daughter Carrie Fisher was the inspiration for Fisher’s 1987 semi-autobiographic novel Postcards from the Edge, which dealt with her often fraught relationship with Fisher, from whom she was estranged for a time. The book was a bestseller and was later turned into a 1990 film starring Shirley MacLaine and Meryl Streep.

Reynolds reconnected with her daughter, and the two were especially close — living next door to each other. HBO is set to premiere a documentary about the famous mother and daughter, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, sometime in 2017.

Watch Carrie Fisher’s moving tribute to her mother in 2015, when Reynolds was awarded the Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award:

Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum

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