R.I.P. Debbie Reynolds

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My thoughts are with Billie Lourd and Todd Fisher. This is crushing.

She was so talented and she was lucky enough to have “come up” in a Hollywood that knew what to do with her. She could do it all. A triple threat, as they say. There is almost no such thing anymore. As a kid, I was obsessed with Singin’ In the Rain, as I know millions are, and especially theatre nerds. It’s a vision of a life in show biz that makes you want to enter into it. I wanted to enter into it when I was 10, and I still do. While that film will be her main legacy, there were so many others, including her Oscar-nominated performance in The Unsinkable Molly Brown (a movie I also discovered early and loved immediately.) How the West Was Won was always on rotation on the local PBS channel where I grew up, and I loved it, too.

As I have written about before, the battered copy of Carroll Baker’s memoir (discovered in the local library where I had my first after-school job starting in middle school) I can say, without too much exaggeration, changed the course of my life. Or at least opened up the path that I ended up following for the next decades. It started there. Carroll Baker was in How the West Was Won, and she had a blast doing it, and wrote a lovely and funny portrait of Debbie Reynolds.

Debbie Reynolds had had her children at almost exactly the same time as I had. Her daughter Carrie was Blanche’s age, and her son Todd, like Herschel, was five. I was hoping that she would bring Carrie and Todd with her. It wasn’t only the thought of our children playing together that appealed to me, but the possibilities of our nannies keeping each other company…

Rumors were circulating that [Jimmy] Stewart was a regular guy, and that Reynolds was spoiled and a snob. The rumors about Jimmy being a super person were true, but those nasty ones about Reynolds were totally untrue. She was neither difficult nor stuck-up; in fact, nothing could have been further from the truth. It’s odd how unflattering tales get started. Perhaps because Debbie had begun in films as a young girl and had been a star now for so many years, people who didn’t know her automatically expected her to behave like a grande dame.

There were whispers that she would bring a large entourage, that she would always be late, and that she would be unreasonably demanding. I was therefore totally unprepared for the real Debbie Reynolds – a delightfully down-to-earth actress, woman, mother – and friend.

Late evening of the first day, while we were still unpacking, I heard a knock at the door. A perky five-foot-two-inch elfin sprite, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt and a bandana covering her hair, was prancing on my doorstep. She had a little boy in her arms and a little girl by the hand. From the moment I answered the door, she took over with bubbling enthusiasm.

“Hi. You’re Carroll. I’m Debbie. This is Carrie and Todd. I told them that your kids are the same age. So we’ve come to get acquainted.”

In my surprise and delight, I must have hesitated in replying because she went on to say, “Look, I know that you’re a serious method thespian and you probably think that I’m a corny musical comedy actress, but we are going to be movie sisters and it will be great for our kids to play together. Anyway, I’m a pushy broad and I’m determined to be your friend. So why don’t you invite me in?”

That was how our friendship began. Our fondness for one another has grown and lasted, and is one of those rare and cherished friendships where we can begin a conversation one year and take it up again after any length of time without missing a beat.

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TCM’s Star of the Month tribute to Debbie Reynolds was written/narrated by Carrie Fisher. It’s perfect.

Rest in peace.

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3 Responses to R.I.P. Debbie Reynolds

  1. What I remember most right now is my mother (long gone) imitating her in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I’ve still never seen the movie. I’ll have to fix that.

    Too awful for words.

  2. Irv O. Neil says:

    Wonderful excerpt. Thank you for posting it. I read Carroll Baker’s autobiography three or four years ago myself and it was extremely enjoyable and interesting in its honesty. This remembrance of Debbie Reynolds gives an example of it.

    A sad couple of days indeed.

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