After Silk Stockings, the motion picture offers slowed down. Scripts which came to him did not intrigue him. The horses were not winning as often as they had before. Las Vegas nightclubs made offers of obscene amounts of money, but the thought of dancing live two times a night kept him from agreeing. It was television which offered new challenges.
He began with a dramatic role on General Electric Theater. "Imp on a Cobweb Leash". It was a light comedy, with no singing or dancing, but with his easy-going charm and pleasurable performance, critics and audiences welcomed Fred into their homes.
An alluring offer for Astaire to create his own musical program arrived in 1958 from the Chrysler Corporation. For An Evening with Fred Astaire, a one-hour musical special, he created Ava Productions and produced the show himself, ensuring complete creative control over the product.
With an unheard-of six-week rehearsal period (most musical variety shows allowed two weeks of rehearsal for the dance numbers), Barrie Chase as his dancing co-star, Hermes Pan as co-choreographer, television veteran Bud Yorkin as producer-director and David Rose as musical director, Astaire began at NBC. Inspired by their jazz recording of "St. James Infirmary," Astaire also invited Jonah Jones and his Quartet to appear on the show.
Barrie Chase and Fred
On the evening of October 17, 1958, Fred Astaire changed the history of television, as he had done with the movies. Newsweek praised, "From the moment the slick-haired old master- 59 - showed a chorus of young dancers what it was all about in his opening number till he pulled up a stool and sang a dozen nostalgic tunes in his breathy voice, there wasn't a doubt. This was one of TV's finest hours." The viewing audience was huge, the critical reviews love-letters and when next year's Emmy Awards were given out, the show received an unprecedented nine awards, among them one for Astaire himself for "Best Performance by an Actor Fred Astaire - as Fred Astaire."
At the same time, Astaire was writing his autobiography. Steps in Time (1959, a title suggested by close friend Noel Coward), co-authored by friend Cameron Shipp and proofed and edited by Ava, Like Astaire, it was gentle, dealing with a wide variety of subjects and not as "Juicy" as gossip-mongers had hoped for.
A new opportunity to stretch his abilities arrived with an offer from producer-director Stanley Kramer to take a straight dramatic role in On the Beach, the film version of the best-selling doomsday novel by author Nevil Shute. With co-stars Gregory Peck, Ava Gardner and Anthony Perkins, Fred went to Australia to film, delivering an economical, no- nonsense performance as a cynical scientist. With a new appreciation of Astaire's talents, several critics echoed the sentiments of critic John Stevens in the Melbourne Sun: "I wouldn't be surprised if his role in On the Beach earns Fred Astaire an Oscar."
He returned to television with Another Evening with Fred Astaire, and then his third special, Astaire Time. Once again dancing with Barrie Chase, he fulfilled a longtime ambition to dance to the music of Count Basic and his orchestra. Again, the ratings were among the highest and the critics searched for new words of praise.
Jack Lemmon and Fred
Astaire fulfilled his commitment at Paramount with The Pleasure of His Company, a straight comedy incorporating brief dance spins with co-stars Lilli Palmer and Debbie Reynolds. Next came a role in Columbia's comedy/mystery The Notorious Landlady with Kim Novak and Jack Lemmon, which was received less enthusiastically by critics.
From 1961 to 1963, he continued to brighten TV screens as host and occasional star in Alcoa Premiere, an anthology series. He was re-teamed with Barrie Chase in "Think Pretty,' a musical comedy on Bob Hope Presents the Chrysler Theatre, and the Daily News critic wrote, "Memories of Fred Astaire's classy ballroom routines with Ginger Rogers in those vintage movies were eased by the Peter Pan of the dance when he shook his way through the Watusi on television last night."
He enjoyed being a guest star on the popular dramatic series Dr. Kildare in the role of a hustler, which utilized his pool table skills. During 1965- 1966, he made four appearances on ABC-TV's popular musical-variety show The Hollywood Palace, as host and dancing with Barrie Chase.
As the musical film was breathing its last gasps, Hollywood sought ways to revitalize the genre with mammoth, hulking, heavy-breathing "Blockbusters" of filmed Broadway successes (Hello Dolly!, The Sound of Music, Sweet Charity) and original screen scripts (Dr. Dolittle, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Star!). With multi-million dollar budgets, excessive lengths and presented in road show engagements to give the aura that they were special, the collapsing studio system grappled with the form that Astaire had refined and defined.
Fred was offered what was to be his final film musical by Warner Bros. Finian's Rainbow had been owned by the studio since the stage version created a sensation on Broadway in 1947 but, with its story combining racial tensions and fantasy, they never knew quite what to do with it. Signing Astaire to play "Finian," British pop singer Petula dark to portray his daughter and British rock star Tommy Steele to play a leprechaun were canny decisions, but the hiring of twenty-nine-year-old film wunderkind Francis Ford Coppola to direct muddied its chances for success. Never having worked on a musical before, Coppola angered and eventually fired Hermes Pan and photographed the film with new-style camera work and effects, but was unable to draw focus to the heart which beat at the center of the story. The critics were less than kind, with the English press being especially tough: "Now we know. There's schmaltz at the end of the rainbow" (London Evening Standard) and "Blarney is to blame" (Daily Telegram).
Astaire began his last musical television special. The Fred Astaire Show, in January, 1968. He was now sixty-seven years old, a remarkable age for the sprightly dancing he had done in Finian's Rainbow, but the concentrated dance effort for this TV show would prove finally to be too much. Although, over the years, he had complained about the physical strains of dancing and his advancing age, this time he meant it. "Old dancers never die, they just sweat away. I like to dance, but it's such damned hard work" . Barrie Chase even noticed that he was slowing down, asking for less strenuous choreography and relying on her to fill the numbers with high energy and complicated movements. The show aired on February 7, 1968 and, as usual, received excellent ratings and reviews (Variety: "Opulent in its settings and laden with terp, this first Fred Astaire special in eight years mixed the new sounds and dances with the old with mixed results. The eight-year span makes it difficult to recall, but Astaire seems as spry and as deft today as he is on those late, late show musicals from the 30s.")
In 1969, he accepted a dramatic role in Midas Run with location filming in Europe and Fred Jr. joined him, playing a small role in the film, in his only on-screen appearance.
Robert Wagner personally invited Astaire to portray his father in Wagner's TV series, It Takes a Thief. The on-screen chemistry between the two elegant men was magical and their off-screen friendship blossomed.
In 1970, Astaire joined character actors Walter Brennan, Andy Devine, Chill Wills and Edgar Buchanan in The Over-The-Hill Gang Rides Again, a sequel to a successful made-for-TV movie of several seasons before. Finally, Astaire got his chance to be in a "Western."
Fred in the early 70s
Fred diversified once again and took his place in TV animation classic's annals as the voice for the lead character in Santa Claus Is Coming to Town, first broadcast on ABC in December, 1970. Despite his growing reluctance to dwell on the past in interviews, he admitted to enjoying his appearing as the sole-guest on a special 90-minute long Dick Cavett TV show on November 10, 1970. Cavett's sensitive and intelligent handling of Astaire led to a second appearance on October 13, 1971.
Movie musicals had one last burst of box office success with the M-G-M retrospective, That's Entertainment! in 1974. Astaire agreed to film new sequences as a narrator for the picture, which was comprised of clips from song-and-dance epics of the past and released in conjunction with the studio's 50th anniversary. He also joined press junkets to promote the film and persuaded Adele to make a rare public appearance at a lavish affair in Beverly Hills. They even briefly danced across the stage for the first time in forty-two years. For those in attendance, it was a night of joy (and tears shed) for the nostalgic magic.
For his next motion picture, Fred joined the disaster film genre, then enjoying its peak of success, with an all-star cast in The Towering Inferno created by epic disaster master Irwin Alien. Co-starring with Paul Newman, William Holden, Steve Me Queen, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner and Jennifer Jones, Astaire gamely battled fire and water to receive unanimous critical raves (Variety. 12.18.74, Murf.: "The strategy of casting expensive talent, which added to the cost, has paid off handsomely...Fred Astaire is excellent as con artist charmer") and his first Academy Award nomination for "Best Supporting Actor" for his performance.
At the Oscar ceremony on Aprils, 1975, Fred sat next to Francis Ford Coppola, who was rewarded that year for his direction of The Godfather, Part II. Astaire smiled graciously as the TV cameras showed him applaud the winner in his category, Robert De Niro, for his role in the Coppola Film.
While Fred was in London making recordings with Bing Crosby, mother Ann died on July 30, 1975 at the age of 96, creating another emotional void in his life. Delly, again widowed when Kingman Douglass died in October, 1971, now lived in Phoenix, Arizona, so she and Fred were able to spend more time together. Although Ava had married artist and gallery owner Richard McKenzie in 1970 and they had their own Beverly Hills residence, Fred kept her wing of the house intact for their use. She continued to make herself available to her father, attending industry functions and giving him advice on business decisions. Socially, Fred still enjoyed being with Barrie Chase and found a loyal ladyfriend in actress Carol Lynley. Hermes Pan was never far away.
Fred, 77, and Gene, 64, in That's Entertainment! Part 2
Due to the commercial success of That's Entertainment!, M-G-M invited Fred back to co-host That's Entertainment, Part II with Gene Kelly. As he had done for the first retrospective, Fred devoted much time to the promotion of the film, travelling to Europe and the Cannes Film Festival with a raft of Metro stars, including Kelly, Kathryn Grayson, Cyd Charisse, Marge Champion and Johnny Weissmuller. Kelly and Astaire even co-hosted a week-long tribute to the film on The Mike Douglas Show. On May 9, 1976, the day before his seventy-seventh birthday, M-G-M held the world premiere of That's Entertainment, Part II at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York, with Fred blowing out the candles on a massive birthday cake at the party held after the film's showing.
With grandchildren (Fred, Jr. had three children. Peter also had three and Ava had two stepsons), Astaire felt the need to do a "family picture" and agreed to appear in The Amazing Dobermans with James Fransiscus and Barbara Eden in 1976. The day after the film was completed, he had an accident on a skateboard in his Beverly Hills driveway, breaking his wrist. Wire services around the world immediately picked up the story of the still agile seventy-seven-year-old man who "exercised daily" on his skateboard.
1977 found him on location in Ireland, filming Une Taxi Mauve (The Purple Taxi). His long love for the British Isles and the somehow mystical Astaire family Irish Connection - begun by Adele and her residence at Lismore Castle, with Ava and Richard also having a sea-coast home in Ireland - were the deciding factors in his agreeing to the role. The film, however, with its convoluted script and even more confusing French-ltalian- Irish co-production, was not widely released in the United States.
Television gave him his next award, this time another Ernmy as "Best Actor" on A Family Upside Down, a dramatic film about an elderly couple with Helen Hayes, Patty Duke Astin and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. co-starring. The film reunited Astaire and Hayes, longtime friends and admirers. During the time of their prolific stage careers, Astaire had written a fan letter to Miss Hayes, offering his services in any part she might have for him. Over the years, she had tried to get him to appear in stage productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You Like It. Some forty-odd years later, the stage legends finally appeared together.
He continued TV work with a 1979 appearance in Battlestar Galactica, a highly successful space opera which he did to please his grandchildren. Later asked what his favourite role was, the man who had appeared in so many movies with countless stars answered that his appearance in Battlestar Galactica was his favourite role because his little grandson had been so impressed with it.
On To The Living Legend...