LOS ANGELES (AP) — Debbie Reynolds embodied the sunshine of postwar America on the screen as she matched steps with Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Carrie Fisher brought the sarcasm and cynicism of the Baby Boomers to her movies, books and stage shows, even when she was playing a princess in “Star Wars.”
The mother and daughter, separated by so many differences both personal and generational, are likely drawn closer in the public memory after their deaths on successive days.
Reynolds died on Wednesday at age 84, just as she and the rest of the world were starting to mourn her daughter Fisher, who died on Tuesday at 60, days after falling ill on a flight.
Even after a year of shocking and constant celebrity deaths, the one-two punch of Fisher and Reynolds brought a staggering finale to 2016.
Reynolds’ son Todd Fisher said his sister’s death was “just too much” for his mother.
“She said, ‘I want to be with Carrie,'” Fisher told The Associated Press by phone from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where Reynolds had just died after being rushed there earlier in the day. “And then she was gone.”
No cause of death has been revealed for either woman.
Both mother and daughter enjoyed the heights of show business success and endured the depths of personal troubles. Their relationship for years ranged from strained to non-existent, a theme frequently explored in Fisher’s writing, but late in life they became allies and close confidantes in their struggles.
Reynolds lost one husband to Elizabeth Taylor and two other husbands plundered her for millions.
Fisher struggled from early in life with addiction and mental illness.
“There have been a few times when I thought I was going to lose Carrie,” Reynolds said when Oprah Winfrey interviewed both mother and daughter in 2011. “I’ve had to walk through a lot of my tears. But she’s worth it.”
As Fisher tried to distance herself from Reynolds, she barely spoke to her mother for nearly a decade.
“It’s very hard when your child doesn’t want to talk to you and you want to talk to them, and you want to touch them, you want to hold them,” Reynolds told Winfrey. “It was a total estrangement.”
Reaction to Reynolds’ death was swift and emotional.
“Debbie Reynolds, a legend and my movie mom. I can’t believe this happened one day after Carrie,” Albert Brooks, who played opposite Reynolds in “Mother,” said on Twitter.
“I can’t imagine what Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’ family are going through this week. I send all of my love,” Ellen DeGeneres tweeted.
Born Mary Frances Reynolds, she spent the first eight years of her life in Depression-era poverty in El Paso, Texas. Her father, a carpenter for the Southern Pacific Railroad, was transferred to California and the family settled in Burbank, near Warner Bros. studio.
The girl flourished, excelling as a girl scout and athlete, and playing French horn and bass viola in the Burbank Youth Symphony. Girlfriends persuaded her to enter the beauty contest for Miss Burbank, and she won over the judges.
She found superstardom quickly. After a handful of minor roles, MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer cast her in “Singin’ in the Rain,” despite Kelly’s objections.
But at 19 with little dance experience, she managed to match Kelly and Donald O’Connor, two of the screens most masterful dancers, step-for-step.
“Gene Kelly was hard on me, but I think he had to be,” Reynolds, who more than held her own in the movie, said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “I had to learn everything in three to six months. Donald O’Connor had been dancing since he was three months old, Gene Kelly since he was 2 years old.”
After her transition from starlet to star, Reynolds became popular with teenage girls and even more so when in 1955 she married Eddie Fisher, the pop singer whose fans were equally devoted.
The couple made a movie together, “Bundle of Joy,” which seemed to mirror the 1956 birth of Carrie. The Fishers’ next child was Todd, named for Eddie’s close friend and Taylor’s husband, showman Mike Todd.
During this period, Reynolds had a No. 1 hit on the pop charts in 1957 with “Tammy,” the Oscar-nominated song from her film “Tammy and the Bachelor.” But the Cinderella story ended after Mike Todd died in a 1958 airplane crash. Fisher consoled the widow and soon announced he was leaving his wife and two children to marry Taylor.
The celebrity world seemed to lose its mind. Taylor was assailed as a husband stealer, Fisher as a deserter. Reynolds won sympathy as the innocent victim. A cover headline in Photoplay magazine in late 1958 blared: “Smiling through her tears, Debbie says: I’m still very much in love with Eddie.”
Fisher’s singing career never recovered, but Reynolds’ film career flourished.
The 1964 Meredith Willson musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” with Molly’s defiant song “I Ain’t Down Yet,” brought Reynolds her only Academy Award nomination.
She also starred with Glenn Ford in “The Gazebo,” Tony Curtis in “The Rat Race,” Fred Astaire in “The Pleasure of His Company,” Andy Griffith in “The Second Time Around,” with the all-star cast in “How the West Was Won” and Ricardo Montalban in “The Singing Nun.”
And she provided the voice of Charlotte in the 1973 animated “Charlotte’s Web,” the same year she received a Tony nomination for her starring role in the Broadway revival of “Irene,” in which her Fisher also appeared.
But marital woes made life outside entertainment difficult.
In 1960 Reynolds married shoe magnate Harry Karl. The marriage ended in 1973 when she discovered that Karl, a compulsive gambler, had devastated her assets.
Reynolds’ third marriage, to Virginia businessman Richard Hamlett in 1984, proved equally disastrous. In 1992, against friends’ advice, she paid $10 million to buy and convert a faded Las Vegas hotel into the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino, where she performed nightly.
Reynolds ended up filing for bankruptcy in 1997 and accusing Hamlett of making off with her money.
“All of my husbands have robbed me blind,” she said in 1999.
In her later years, Reynolds continued performing her show, traveling 40 weeks a year. She also appeared regularly on television, appearing as John Goodman’s mother on “Roseanne” and a mom on “Will & Grace.”
In 1996 she won critical acclaim in the title role of Albert Brooks’ movie “Mother.” Reynolds and her daughter were featured together in the HBO documentary “Bright Lights,” scheduled for release in 2017.
Eventually, she reconciled and teamed up with Taylor — long since divorced from Fisher — and two other veterans, Joan Collins and MacLaine, for the 2001 TV movie “These Old Broads.” The script, co-written by Carrie Fisher, was about aging, feuding actresses who get together for a reunion show. Reynolds would look back wryly on the Taylor affair, acknowledging that no man could have resisted Taylor, who died in 2011.
Reynolds received an honorary Oscar in 2015, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, but was too ill to attend the ceremony. Her granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd, accepted the statuette in her honor.
Reynolds took solace and strength in her last years from her renewed closeness with her daughter.
“I would say that Carrie and I have finally found happiness,” Reynolds told Winfrey in 2011. “I admire her strength and survival.”
AP entertainment reporters Hillel Italie in New York and Lynn Elber, Sandy Cohen and Anthony McCartney in Los Angeles contributed to this report. The late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas contributed biographical material.
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