“Planning a big television show is an extraordinary experience,” Fred Astaire wrote of his first television special, An Evening with Fred Astaire, in his 1959 autobiography, Steps in Time. “It’s somewhat like launching a space missile.
“We had numerous run-throughs and several dress rehearsals at NBC, and then came the fateful evening, October 17. Our show went faultlessly.”
The show won a record nine Emmy Awards, including one for Astaire as best actor. The program’s success surprised even its star.
“The response astounded me,” Astaire wrote, “At most I had hoped for and perhaps expected a success, but I could not have anticipated the kudos and awards that came our way. In all my years in the theatrical profession, I have never experienced such a unanimous reaction of approval both from the audience and from the press.”
Bud Yorkin, who produced and directed 1958’s An Evening with Fred Astaire and 1959’s Another Evening with Fred Astaire, says, “Nothing that he ever did had the impact on his life of that first show. Prior to that time, he never really considered the importance of television. When he and I went to a party that the sponsor, Chrysler, threw after the show — which was done live — the phone calls were lined up from President Eisenhower to Ed Sullivan. And Astaire, being a very shy man at best, was totally overwhelmed. He just never thought the show would result in so much attention.”
Born Frederick Austerlitz in Omaha, Nebraska, in 1899, Astaire became a child star dancing with his sister Adele in vaudeville. In 1917, the Astaires appeared in their first Broadway show, Over the Top, and during the next 14 years they became popular musical-comedy performers in New York and London.
In 1932, following Adele’s marriage and retirement, Astaire came to Hollywood to film Flying Down to Rio, which was released in 1933, with his new partner, Ginger Rogers.
Rogers, who would dance with Astaire in 10 pictures, says, “His motivation was his innate talent to dance. He loved to dance. I think his love for it was overpowering. He would go into rehearsals early, even before they were scheduled. But he’d always say, ‘We could have done it better.’ He just loved doing what he was doing. Whenever you see him dance and sing, you know he loved it and that’s why it was so good. He was a darling, gracious man.”
Astaire took to television gradually, first making several promotional appearances for his 1955 film Daddy Long Legs and then starring in a dramatic role in the General Electric Theater's 1957 production, “Imp on a Cobweb Leash.”
In early 1958 Astaire signed with Chrysler Corporation to star in and executive produce a series of annual specials, the first being An Evening with Fred Astaire. In 1960, he mounted Astaire Time, and in 1968, The Fred Astaire Show.
“Fred thought ahead and never looked back,” Yorkin says. “He did the first [special] as a challenge because the whole notion of television intrigued him. Here’s a guy who came from vaudeville, Broadway, movies, and radio. It seemed only proper to him that he should at least attempt television. Fred had more vitality than anyone else on the show. He was physically equal to anybody in the chorus. He used to come in a half-hour before the rest of the cast and warm up. He would do nothing but run around the room and tap. He'd work up a big sweat, and by the time everybody else came in, he’d already changed his Brooks Brothers Oxford-blue shirt for the first time of the day.
“It was a very hot summer, and we rehearsed in a Hollywood mortuary, which was very hot. Most of the chorus could barely make it through the day. By 5:30 p.m. or 6:00 p.m., he’d have changed five shirts, and if left to his own devices he’d say, ‘Why don’t we continue on until 10:00 p.m.?’”
Yorkin continues, “He was striving for perfection. I don’t know if he enjoyed it, but he never thought there was enough time to rehearse. He always thought, ‘I took three months to prepare for a movie, and I have only six weeks’ rehearsal for the show.’”
Hermes Pan, who began working with Astaire in 1933 and who choreographed three of his television specials, remembers Astaire’s love of music: “Fred would call me, sometimes in the middle of the night, and talk mostly about music. He would say, ‘Listen to this. Isn’t that a great rhythm?’ When Fred danced, he interpreted the music. It told him what to do. It’s sort of an abstract thing, but when he heard music, he could visualize the motion. The rhythm was the spark for him.”
Astaire and Yorkin had agreed from the start that the first special, in which Astaire danced with Barrie Chase to the music of both the Jonah Jones Quartet and a 40-piece orchestra conducted by David Rose, would emphasize original material. Astaire would close the show by singing a medley of the songs he had made famous in his films. Included were “Cheek to Cheek,” “A Fine Romance,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” “A Foggy Day,” “Night and Day,” and “Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.”
Yorkin says, “We worked very hard on that medley. He was such a stickler for tempo and so forth. When you're doing 15 minutes of Astaire classics — 15 or 18 songs — all of which run into different rhythms and different tempos, it’s not easy for a guy who was as meticulous as Fred was. Hank Mancini once said that it’s fascinating that Cole Porter and all the other great songwriters wanted to write for Astaire. His voice was, at best, nice. He never had the voice other guys had, nor did he ever sell records like anybody else, but he had such a perfect way of phrasing a number that they all wanted him to introduce their songs.”
“Fred changed television,” Yorkin notes. “He showed that you could do the kind of quality that had never been done before [on television]. You could have the scope, the size, and the grandeur [of the movies; Astaire showed] it was possible to choreograph for a small screen on a big stage. Television was a medium of close-ups. Astaire proved you didn’t have to be on a close-up every minute of the show.”
Commenting on his unique style in his autobiography, Astaire wrote: “Sometimes my work is referred to in terms of ballet, but I am not, of course, a ballet dancer. I never cared for it as applied to me. I wanted to do all my dancing my own way, in a sort of outlaw style. I always resented being told that I couldn’t point my toe in, or some other such rule.
“In other words, I wanted to retain the basic principles of balance and grace, but I did not want a ballet style to be predominant.
“When it comes to the evolution of dance — history and philosophy — I know as much about that as I know about how a television tube produces a picture, which is absolutely nothing. I don’t know how it all started, and I don’t want to know. I have no desire to prove anything by it. I have never used it as an outlet or a means of expressing myself.
“I just dance.”
This tribute originally appeared in the Television Academy Hall of Fame program celebrating Fred Astaire's induction in 1989.