Debbie Reynolds Reveals Another Family Connection to 'Star Wars'

The 'Singin' in the Rain' legend, who will receive SAG's Life Achievement Award on Sunday, talks about her life, work and multiple family ties to J.J. Abrams' upcoming film — and insists, "I'll never retire."
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Debbie Reynolds

This story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Announcing Debbie Reynolds as this year's recipient of the SAG Life Achievement Award, SAG-AFTRA president Ken Howard saluted her as "a tremendously talented performer with a diverse body of screen and stage work, live performances and several hit records." But that's something of an understatement. Reynolds, 82, has been performing since age 16, when she won the title of Miss Burbank. That led to a contract at Warner Bros., where she spent two years before she was scooped up by MGM, the mecca of musicals. On Jan. 22, Turner Classic Movies will salute her by airing five of her films, and Jan. 25, it's a safe bet her fellow actors will rise to their feet to applaud her, and her longevity, at the SAG Awards.

Read more SAG Awards: Debbie Reynolds to Receive Lifetime Achievement Honor

What was your reaction when you learned you'd been chosen to receive SAG's Life Achievement Award?

Ken Howard called and told me I was picked for the award. It was a surprise to me — I was amazed and am delighted to receive it. The last recipient was Rita Moreno, who's an old friend of mine from our MGM days — we were under contract at the same time. It's special because it's from my peers — people who have talent and know what you do — so I'm looking forward to it! I've asked my daughter, Carrie [Fisher], to present it to me, and we're bringing the whole family, so it will be a family affair!

Looking back, what was your big break?

I loved Betty Hutton and Judy Garland and all the musicals, and I came into the business after entering the Miss Burbank contest, doing a Betty Hutton imitation and winning the prize, which led to a studio contract and the beginning of my career.

With Brooks in 1996’s Mother.

Which of your films do you feel proudest of?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown was my favorite role and the best part that I had to play, as was Mother, a wonderful Albert Brooks movie that he wrote a great screenplay for. I also loved How the West Was WonThe Tender Trap with Frank SinatraThe Mating Game with Tony Randall — and I had great fun working on Goodbye Charlie with Walter Matthau, who I thought was a wonderful man. But the greatest movie that I was a part of was Singin' in the Rain. I was very fortunate that [producer] Arthur Freed took a young girl who had no training at all — didn't dance, didn't sing, didn't do anything — and gave her a chance to be in that film. And then I had to prove myself! I owe a lot to him and [MGM executives] L.B. Mayer — Mr. Mayer — and Benny Thau and Irving Thalberg. It was the era when they would take an unknown girl and make a star of her overnight. I was lucky. God was very good to me.

Read more Carrie Fisher to Present Mother Debbie Reynolds With SAG Lifetime Achievement Award

What was it like to work at MGM in its heyday?

They ran it like a university might be run. They had one floor of producers, one floor of directors, one floor of writers. And another building were all the editors. And everybody had students under them, learning the business. So there were always the top writers, and then there were the younger writers, and they were being taught by the older writers, and everybody kind of shared ideas. You had your drama teacher, then you had your voice teacher; you learned how to interpret classical and regular lyrics, then you had your music department — Johnny Green, Andre Previn, Connie Salinger, all these great musicians and writers and lyricists and arrangers.

Harve Presnell and Reynolds kicked up their heels in the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown, in which she played the title character who survives the sinking of the Titanic — Kathy Bates played the same person in James Cameron’s 1997 account of the famous disaster.

Is it true that, while working with Gene Kelly on Singin' in the Rain, you were being tutored by Fred Astaire?

Yes, it's true. He was working on the soundstage next door to us, and he kept encouraging me not to be discouraged, not to cry, to keep practicing and to believe that I could do it. He would let me watch him rehearse — he never let anyone watch him rehearse — so I could see how hard it was, no matter how great your natural talent.

You were, until recently, a great collector of movie memorabilia. What do you think of the Academy's plan for its own Museum of Motion Pictures?

The biggest fan of all time is me. Anyone who's a fan wants to touch an object held by their favorite star. We should have had a museum many, many years ago. It's much too late. We're behind on it. But I'm excited and looking forward to it.

Read more Debbie Reynolds 'Hurt' by Academy for Refusing Her Memorabilia Collection

How did you feel about your daughter following you into the business? And now returning to the Star Wars franchise?

George Lucas is a great producer, and I'm very grateful to him for giving my daughter an opportunity to play a great part. My first [big] role was Singin' in the Rain, and my daughter's first [big] role was Star Wars. I had one bun for a hairdo, and Carrie had two buns! She just finished the new Star Wars — and my granddaughter, Billie Lourd, is playing a role in it, too! It's very exciting to see my granddaughter jumping into the fray also.

With Fisher at the 2011 Emmy Awards.

If director J.J. Abrams had asked you to play a cameo in the new Star Wars with your daughter and granddaughter, what would you have said?

I would have said yes! It would have been great fun. I'm not sure they would have agreed; in fact, they must not have, because they didn't invite me in. Otherwise I would have been there.

Are you still traveling and performing a lot?

I was until just this last February, when I closed in Las Vegas. I'm going to cut way back now. I have never taken any time off — no vacation ever in 66 years — so I'm going to take off. I haven't been feeling really well the last two years, so I've decided that God is giving me a sign: "Take it easy, kid!" And I'm going to do just that.

Read more SAG Awards: 'Birdman,' 'Modern Family' Land Most Nominations

So do you now consider yourself to be retired or just on hiatus?

Hiatus. I'll never retire. I'll always perform. It's the ham in me — I love to sing and dance. I watch Turner Classic Movies every night — what would I do without TCM? I would really be lost and unhappy without them! And I like new movies — I liked Into the Woods. The parts are so different. I was in musicals and comedies, mostly; the young actors today have more dramatic films, fuller roles to play than I had the opportunity to do. I enjoy watching all of them.

If Gene Kelly had a theme song, it probably was "Singin' in the Rain." What would yours be?

"I Ain't Done Yet." (Sings the song.) Also the songs from Molly Brown and Singin' in the Rain — maybe "Good Morning." (Sings that song as well.)

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