By Ed Garea
There’s an old adage the death comes in threes, but this time it more poignantly came in a dual setting. They couldn’t live without each other and they couldn’t die without each other.
Carrie Fisher, forever immortal for her portrayal of Princess Leia in the Star Wars series, died at the age of 60 on December 27, four days after experiencing a serious medical emergency on a flight from London to New York.
On December 28, she was followed to heaven by her mother, Debbie Reynolds, who succumbed to a stroke at age of 84. Reynolds had been discussing funeral plans for Fisher when she died.
Look up the word “trouper” in the dictionary and you will likely see Debbie Reynolds’ picture below it. She embodied the word.
She was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, in El Paso, Texas. Her father, Ray, was a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad and her mother, Maxene, was a homemaker who took in laundry to help make ends meet.
With the promise of a better job, her father moved the family to California when Mary Frances was 7. She dreamed of going to college and becoming a gym teacher, but her career plans changed radically when she was named Miss Burbank 1948 with an act in which she impersonated Betty Hutton. Her reason for entering the contest was because everyone who entered received a silk scarf, blouse and free lunch. Two of the judges were movie-studio scouts, and she was soon under contract to Warner Bros., which changed her name to “Debbie Reynolds.”
Although she wanted to be in show business, the family’s church, the Nazarene Baptists, forbade acting and considered movies sinful. However, her father saw her talent and gave his support, seeing it as a means of paying her college costs. Her mother then gave her support knowing that there would be no "evil" going on in her movies.
Her first film was an uncredited role in Warner Bros.’ 1948 comedy, June Bride, starring Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery. The studio dropped her option after six months and she signed with MGM.
In 1950, she made her debut with MGM in the musical comedy The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, which starred June Haver and Gordon MacRae, as Maureen O’Grady. That same year, she played Helen Kane, the 1920s singer known as the boop-boop-a-doop girl, in Three Little Words and also appeared in Two Weeks With Love as Melba Robinson. In the movie she she sang “Aba Daba Honeymoon” with Carleton Carpenter. The song became a huge novelty hit.
Her breakthrough role came in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, a musical about how talkies put the silent movie out of business. She played Kathy Selden, a chorus girl who is hired to provide the voice for Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), the self-important co-star of Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly), with whom she falls in love.
Her roles reflected the current attitudes toward love, marriage and family. In 1953, she was the girl friend of Bobby Van in the musical comedy The Affairs of Dobie Gillis. In The Tender Trap (1955), she played a marriage-minded young woman opposite Frank Sinatra. In 1956, she starred as the daughter of Bette Davis and Ernest Borgnine in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair, about a poor working-class couple scraping to afford a decent wedding for their daughter. Later that year she starred with new husband Eddie Fisher in Bundle of Joy, a musical remake of the 1939 Ginger Rogers-David Niven comedy Bachelor Mother. And in the smash hit Tammy and the Bachelor (1957), she played the daughter of a moonshiner from the Louisiana swamps who falls in love with unconventional Southern gentleman Leslie Nielsen. The film’s theme song, “Tammy,” sung by Reynolds, gave her a second smash hit single (five weeks at No. 1). She also had begun appearing on TV, and was a semi-regular on The Eddie Fisher Show (NBC, 1953-57).
But it was her off-screen role with Fisher that made the headlines. In 1955, Reynolds married Fisher, a boyish singer known for his hits “Oh! My Pa-Pa” and “I’m Walking Behind You.” The young couple were quickly embraced by fan magazines and promoted as second only to Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh as America’s sweethearts. She and Fisher had two children, Carrie and Todd Fisher. Their best friends were producer Mike Todd and his new wife, actress Elizabeth Taylor.
Trouble for the Fisher-Reynolds union began when Todd died in a private-plane crash in 1958. The Fishers immediately rushed to comfort the young widow. But Eddie Fisher’s comforting turned into a very public extramarital affair. The result was that Fisher and Reynolds divorced the next year with Fisher marrying Taylor weeks later. Their marriage lasted five years, with Taylor leaving Fisher for Richard Burton, whom she had met in Rome on the set of Cleopatra (1963).
Looking back in an interview with The Chicago Sun-Times almost 40 years later, Reynolds said that Taylor, “Probably she did me a great favor.” In Debbie: My Life, her 1988 autobiography, she described a marriage that was unhappy from the beginning, as nothing she did ever pleased her husband.
While Fisher’s career went into decline, Reynolds, now a single mother of two, rode the waves of a public sympathy that went well with her wholesome screen persona, ranking as one of the top 10 box-office stars in both 1959 and 1960.
Her film choices were mainly lighthearted romantic comedies, such as The Gazebo (1959), Say One for Me (1959), The Pleasure of His Company (1961), and The Second Time Around (1961). She broke this string when she appeared in the epic Western drama, How the West Was Won, in 1963.
Her career peaked with the smash hit The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964, a Western musical based on a true rags-to-riches story that was nominated for 6 Oscars, including Reynolds’ only nomination – for Best Actress. Other hit films from the ‘60s included The Singing Nun (1966), and Divorce, American Style (1967).
But as the Code began to crumble and movies became closer to real life – or, more to the point, real-ish, infused with and taking on social politics – the less that the buoyancy and breezy virtue epitomized by Reynolds seemed relevant.
In 1971, she tried to adapt to the new sensibility by starring in a train wreck with Shelley Winters called What’s the Matter with Helen?, a take on the classic battle of the hags film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? It was her only live action film of the decade. She managed to redeem herself by supplying the voice of the spider Charlotte in the classic animation, Charlotte’s Web (1973).
Reading the handwriting on the wall, Reynolds turned to television, beginning in 1969 with the ill-fated Debbie Reynolds Show. A sitcom in the I Love Lucy vein with Debbie as a wacky wife who wanted to be a journalist like her husband, it lasted only one season, more for its off-screen drama rather than the quality of its on-screen comedy. Reynolds, a vociferous non-smoker, complained long and loud to NBC about cigarette commercials during the show. NBC became so fed up it pulled the plug after one season.
At a stage in life where other could afford to take it easy, Reynolds was forced to the road after her second marriage to shoe magnate Harry Karl, whom she married in 1960, collapsed in 1973. By the time they divorced, he had gambled away or otherwise misspent his fortune and hers, forcing Reynolds to set out to re-establish herself financially.
She began to play Las Vegas, and in 1973, turned to Broadway and became a star all over again in the smash revival of the old musical chestnut Irene, for which she received a Tony nomination for best actress in a musical. In 1975, she played in a revue at the London Palladium. In 1976, she starred in a short-lived one-woman Broadway show, Debbie. Her last Broadway appearance was in 1983, when she took over the role originated by Lauren Bacall in the musical version of Woman of the Year. She adapted her formidable talent into a lively nightclub act that kept her in demand for the next 20 years, including touring the country with stage shows including Annie Get Your Gun and a new version of The Unsinkable Molly Brown.
During the ‘80s she also guest-starred on a number of television shows and starred in the short-lived Aloha Paradise (ABC, 1981) – a Fantasy Island/Love Boat rip-off with Reynolds as a female Ricardo Montalban – and starred as a cop whose partner was her son in the TV-movie, Sadie and Son (CBS, 1987).
Already a fixture in Las Vegas during the ’70s and ’80s, she and her third husband, Richard Hamlett, a Virginia real estate developer to whom she was married from 1984 to 1996, established their own hotel, casino and movie-memorabilia museum there, trying to cash in on the boom of nostalgia for the heyday of the studios with a collection packed with memorabilia she had obtained for decades. The largest collection of its kind in the world, Reynolds' memorabilia included over 40,000 costumes, including Dorothy's ruby slippers and the white dress Marilyn Monroe wore in her infamous 1952 Life magazine photo spread. To keep there enterprise afloat, Reynolds performed constantly at her hotel's nightclub. But the financial problems were too much to overcome, and the property had to be sold in the ’90s.
Reynolds kept searching for a permanent home for her memorabilia collection. At one point it looked as if she would finally find one in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, the home of Dolly Parton’s theme park, Dollywood. But that fell through, and in 2011, a large portion of her collection was auctioned at the Paley Center in Beverly Hills. Over the course of two sales, the first in June and the second in December, it took in a little more than $25 million, including $4.6 million for the dress Marilyn Monroe wore in the famous subway-grate scene in The Seven Year Itch.
As daughter Carrie Fisher shot to stardom as Princess Leia in the Star Wars series and wrote semi-autobiographical novels, Reynolds for a while became better known as her mother rather than as an actress or singer.
In 1996, Reynolds made a big-screen comeback as Albert Brooks’ often-clueless yet admirably self-possessed widowed mother in Mother. Her beautifully underplayed comic performance won her a Golden Globe nomination.
The next year, she played Kevin Kline’s mother in the sexual-identity film comedy In & Out. And from 1999 to 2006, she played Bobbi Adler, Debra Messing’s sociable and uninhibited mother (who had a tendency to burst into show tunes) in the sitcom Will & Grace. To millennials, she is remembered as Aggie Cromwell, the beloved grandmother witch on the Disney Channel's Halloweentown movie series.
Reynolds continued working in both films and television into her late 70s. In 2013, she appeared as Liberace’s strong-willed mother, Frances, in the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra, with Michael Douglas as Liberace. She appeared in a 2016 documentary called Rip Rip, Hooray! about the life and career of comedian Rip Taylor, and the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which was shown at the New York Film Festival in October 2016. Her son, Todd Fisher, also appears and is one of the producers. A documentary called Broadway: Beyond the Golden Age is slated for release in 2017.
In her 2008 memoir, Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher often liked joked that while her mother was under anesthetic delivering her, her father fainted. “So when I arrived, I was virtually unattended! And I have been trying to make up for that fact ever since.”
Carrie Frances Fisher was born on October 21, 1956, in Beverly Hills, the first child of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Her parents divorced when she was a little over two, and her early years were spent traveling from movie set to movie set with mother Debbie and younger brother Todd.
In 1973, she played a debutante in the Broadway musical Irene, which starred her mother, and also appeared in her mother’s Las Vegas nightclub act. In 1975, Carrie made her movie debut in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, a satire of Nixon-era politics and the sexually driven future of Los Angeles. She played the precocious daughter of a wealthy woman (Lee Grant) having an affair with a promiscuous hairdresser (Warren Beatty).
The next year found her competing in an audition with nearly two dozen other actresses (Cindy Williams, Amy Irving, Sissy Spacek and Jodie Foster among them) for the role of Princess Leia in George Lucas’ Star Wars. She won the part and the rest is history. Released in 1977, the movie turned her into an international movie star almost overnight, the first installment in a series whose characters lived “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Fisher established Princess Leia as a damsel who, while in distress, was never helpless. Her independence was seen in the way she faced down the villainy of Darth Vader. She had both the mettle to escape the clutches of the gangster Jabba the Hutt and the tender affection to tell Han Solo (as he is about to be frozen in carbonite) that she loved him.
She returned in three more films: The Empire Strikes Back (1980), Return of the Jedi (1983) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). In the last, she had become a battle-hardened general.
She had recently completed her work in an as-yet-untitled eighth episode of the main Star Wars saga, scheduled to be released in December 2017.
Off-screen, she was forthcoming about her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which fueled her frequent bouts of depression and substance abuse, channeling these struggles into powerful comic works, including her semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge, her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking (which later became a memoir), and The Princess Diarist.
Her substance abuse included such drugs as LSD, Percodan, and cocaine. After completing her role as April in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1985), she had nearly overdosed and had to have her stomach pumped. Afterward, she checked herself into a rehab program in Los Angeles. Those experiences later became the subject for her comic novel Postcards From the Edge, the chapters of which are variously presented as letters, diary entries, monologues and third-person narratives.
The other subject of the novel was her often fractious relationship with her mother. Postcards From the Edge portrayed Ms. Reynolds as a nonchalant, easygoing raconteur ill-suited for real life. The book was made into a movie in 1990, written by Fisher and directed by Mike Nichols, starring Meryl Streep as Suzanne and Shirley MacLaine as her movie-star mother.
Besides the movies motioned above, Fisher also appeared in The Blues Brothers (1980), The Man With One Red Shoe (1985), a segment in Amazon Women on the Moon (1987), The ‘Burbs (1989), Drop Dead Fred (1991), Soapdish (1991), This Is My Life (1992), and Wonderland (2003), among others. She stole the movie as Meg Ryan’s best friend in the 1989 romantic comedy When Harry Met Sally.
Turning to television, she parodied herself in Sex and the City and The Big Bang Theory. She also guest starred on A Nero Wolfe Mystery (A&E, 2002), 30 Rock (NBC, 2007), the British series Catastrophe (Channel 4, 2015), and was the voice of Angela on Family Guy (Fox, 2014-16).
Fisher’s personal life includes an engagement to Dan Ackroyd and a marriage to Paul Simon that lasted for about a year (his song, “Hearts and Bones,” is about her). In The Princess Diarist she finally reveled what many fans suspected – that during the filming of the first Star Wars movie, she and Harrison Ford, who was married at the time, had an affair.
Survivors include her brother, Todd, daughter, Billie Lourd (from a relationship with the talent agent Bryan Lourd), and half-sisters, Joely Fisher and Tricia Leigh Fisher, the daughters of Eddie Fisher and Connie Stevens.