America’s Sweetheart: Debbie Reynolds’ Bold Life, On and Off the Stage

Hollywood starlet Debbie Reynolds was truly the best of the best. The triple threat actress appeared in over thirty films and went on to become one of the best-known and highest-paid actresses of her time. But it wasn’t just her girl-next-door looks that won over her audiences. It was the way she overcame every problem that was thrown her way.

Debbie Reynolds, Eddie, and Carrie Fisher / Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher wearing a graduation gown / Carrie Fisher in Star Wars Episode V / Debbie Fisher holding a ukulele / Gene Kelly and Debbie Fisher posing under an Umbrella from Singing in the Rain / Debbie Reynolds posing in front of a red thunderbird
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She made everyone realize that the impossible was, in fact, possible. From mastering her dance routines for Singin’ in the Rain (with no prior dance experience) to dealing with her husbands’ extramarital affairs and the most famous love triangle in Hollywood history, Debbie Reynolds always came out on top. This is her story.

School of Hard Knocks

Born on April 1, 1932, Mary Francis Reynolds was the second child of Maxene and Raymond Reynolds. Growing up, Reynolds’ parents had a hard time making ends meet. Her mother was a strict homemaker who made sure that her daughter was instilled with the values of the Nazarene church.

Debbie Reynolds at 8 years old posing in the park / Debbie Reynolds eating ice cream in her front yard with a dog behind her
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Her father was a carpenter on the Southern Pacific Railroad. “We may have been poor, but we always had something to eat, ” the actress said in a 1963 interview. “Even if Dad had to go out on the desert and shoot jackrabbits.” Reynolds also said that she is thankful for her modest upbringing, as it taught her how to appreciate the value of a dollar.

The Lucky Move

At one point, while living in El Paso, Texas, Reynolds’ family was homeless. They would sleep in the park and then moved into a small shack with her parents, grandparents, and five uncles on Magnolia Street, right next to the railroad tracks. “Those were hard times, but I loved living there,” Reynolds said in 2015. When the actress was seven years old, her family packed up their belongings and headed to Burbank, California.

Debbie Reynolds standing against a pole
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Even though Reynolds won the Miss Burbank beauty contest in 1948, she had a hard time with the boys. They never found her attractive in school. “She never dressed well or drove a car,” Reynolds’ friend told reporters in 1963. “And, I think, during all the years in school, she was invited to only one dance.”

Heads or Tails?

Reynolds’ religious upbringing influenced her interest in performing. Week after week, she would mow her neighbors’ lawns and clean their houses just to make a few extra bucks to go to the movies. The Nazarene church did not condone movies, so Reynolds was limited to musicals. The actress was first discovered when she was 16 years old.

Debbie Reynolds posing on top of a lounge chair in the sun with an umbrella over her
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Talent scouts from both MGM and Warner Bros. were at her Miss Burbank beauty contest, and both wanted to sign her. So, what did the talent agents do? They flipped a coin to see which studio got her. Warner Bros. won the coin toss, but when they stopped producing musicals two years later, Reynolds moved to MGM.

A Rocky Relationship

Although her mother was religious, she still supported her daughter’s interests. She would make Reynolds’ dresses and make sure that she had what it took to be an actress. In later years, her relationship with her mother was often turbulent and fueled by jealousy, according to Reynolds.

Debbie Reynolds posing with her mother, Maxine
Source: Pinterest

“My mother was tough on me, but I think the reason that she was [tough] was really she wanted to be me, she wanted to be the actress,” Reynolds told Oprah Winfrey in 2011. Despite her difficult upbringing, the actress was never embarrassed about where she came from. She believed that it gave her a better idea of what she wanted from life.

On Her Toes

By the 1950s, Reynolds not only earned her nickname “Debbie” from Jack L. Warner, the president of Warner Bros., but she regularly appeared in musicals with MGM. It wasn’t until she starred in Singin’ in the Rain opposite Gene Kelly that Reynolds became a star. But her road to success proved to be difficult.

Debbie Reynolds dressed up in Singing in the Rain
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Unlike her co-stars, Reynolds had had no dancing experience when she was cast as Kathy Selden. The film went into production in 1951 and lasted a grueling five months. Long hours and difficult routines took a toll on Reynolds, who was trying her hardest to keep up with her castmates. One day, after 14 hours of filming the number for “Good Morning,” Reynold’s feet were blistered and bleeding. She had to be carried to her dressing room.

Debbie’s No Quitter

Kelly’s attitude towards the actress didn’t help the matter. According to the actress, Kelly would come to rehearsals and criticize Reynolds, who was already insecure from her lack of dance experience. Kelly was 20 years her senior and had been classically trained in ballet.

Donald O’Conner, Debbie Reynolds, and Gene Kelly all leaning in and talking in Singing in the Rain
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Her other co-star, 27-year-old Donald O’Conner, had been performing in films since he was only 12 years old. Despite her lack of experience, however, Reynolds never once thought about quitting. “My father had raised me to never start a job unless I planned on finishing it, and I was determined to do my damnedest,” the actress wrote in her memoir Unsinkable.

An Unlikely Friend

Reynolds’ unlikely savior, as she put it, was none other than actor and choreographer Fred Astaire. One day, the actor found Reynolds crying under a piano in the studio’s parking lot. She told him that she was dancing so hard, but it wasn’t getting any easier with time.

Fred Astaire dipping Debbie Reynolds while dancing near a staircase
Photo by Moviestore Collection / Shutterstock

Astaire then invited her to watch him rehearse, something he usually kept secret. “He was just sweating, turning red in the face, and after about an hour, he looked over, and he said, that’s enough,” Reynolds later recalled. “You see how hard it is? It never gets easier.” The actress realized that if a dancer like Astaire had to work hard, everyone else must have to too.

Well-Deserved Praise

Well, Reynold’s hard work paid off. Not only were her dance numbers flawless, but she gained a new perspective in the process. “I didn’t know that I couldn’t do it. So, I did it,” Reynolds later wrote in her memoir. “And I was terrific.” Singin’ in the Rain won over movie critics and is often included on lists of the greatest Hollywood films of all time.

Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher at an event in 1954
Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

After the film’s release, Reynolds became a household name and was sent overseas to entertain American troops fighting in the Korean War. It was there that Reynolds met crooner Eddie Fisher. Little did the actress know that this relationship (or more like the aftermath of the relationship) would change her life forever.

Best Friends Forever?

In the early days of Reynold’s relationship with Fisher, it seemed like she had it all. She was the all-American girl-next-door, and he was a crooning teen idol. The pair married in 1955, and their daughter Carrie was born the following year. Reynolds and Fisher were often photographed around town with Reynolds’ best friend, actress Elizabeth Taylor, and her then-boyfriend Mike Todd.

Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd getting married with Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher standing by their side
Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Todd’s wedding. Photo by Snap / Shutterstock

The two women had become close a few years prior, just before Reynolds’ career took off. The two couples grew so close that when Taylor married Todd in 1957, Reynolds served as the Matron of Honor and Fisher was the Best Man. And when Reynolds gave birth to her second child in 1958, he was named Todd in honor of the couple’s friendship.

The Original Celeb Love Triangle

But less than a month later, Reynolds and Fisher received devastating news: Todd was killed in a plane crash. Fisher hopped on a plane to comfort Taylor, while Reynolds stayed home with the kids. One thing led to another, and Fisher ended up sleeping with his wife’s best friend. Although rumors about an alleged affair had been swirling for a while, Reynolds says it wasn’t until she called Taylor’s hotel room, and Fisher picked up that she knew it was real.

Elizabeth Taylor, Eddie Fisher, and Debbie Reynolds standing together at a party
Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

“I could hear her voice asking him who was calling. They were obviously in bed together,” Reynolds told The Daily Mail in 2010. “I yelled at him, ‘Roll over, darling and let me speak to Elizabeth.’” The actress was devastated. To make matters worse, the scandal was the only thing people seemed to talk about.

Tabloid Feeding Frenzy

Reynolds’ son says that although he was little, he still remembers the “tabloid feeding frenzy” that following his parents’ split. His father was labeled an opportunistic loser, and Taylor a homewrecker. His mother, on the other hand, was praised as the unsuspecting victim, the single mother who worked to support her children.

Debbie Reynolds watching Eddie Fisher holding Carrie up in the air as a baby / Debbie Reynolds holding Todd and Carrie Fisher on her lap in the front seat of a car
Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock (left and right)

While Reynolds didn’t believe in divorce, she knew she couldn’t force a man to stay, so she let him go. The pair officially divorced in 1959, and Fisher wasted no time. As soon as the divorce was final, he and Taylor tied the knot, and he was hated for it. For Taylor and Reynolds, the scandal drew bigger crowds at the box office, but it was a different story for Fisher.

Bye-Bye Eddie

Fisher’s career was forever tarnished by his decision to leave his wife and babies for a woman like Taylor. His variety TV show was canceled, and the entertainer was forced to tour nightclubs. “There was outrage,” the couple’s son told Yahoo Entertainment. “My dad had like contracts canceled for morality clauses. It literally ruined his career.”

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton posing together
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Photo by Pierluigi Praturlon / Shutterstock

To make matters worse, the relationship was over as fast as it began. While filming her 1961 film, Cleopatra, Taylor began an affair with her co-star, Richard Burton, causing another Hollywood scandal. Despite the backlash, Taylor left Fisher to marry her fifth husband. In one final blow, the actress later said that she never loved Fisher. He was just a nice shoulder to cry on.

On to the Next

When Fisher left, he stopped providing for the couple’s two kids. The actress felt she needed to find a man who would not only take care of her but be a good father. “So she picked an older man that was like her dad who could take care of them,” actress and close friend Ruta Lee said. At first, Reynolds was very happy with her new love interest, and the millionaire shoe manufacturer, Harry Karl.

Harry Karl and Debbie Reynolds on the red carpet in 1972
Harry Karl and Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Globe Photos / Shutterstock

The two hit it off instantly. Within a year of divorcing Fisher, Reynolds was married to Karl. She and the kids moved into his marble-clad estate, and she became very involved in her children and stepchildren’s lives.

Doing What She Does Best

It was during her second marriage (and the aftermath of her first) that Reynolds’ career really began to take off. In 1964, the actress starred in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, a role that earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. Like her experience in Singin’ in the Rain, Reynolds was tasked with proving her worth during the film’s production.

Debbie Reynolds and Harve Presnell dancing together in the film The Unsinkable Molly Brown
Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Photo by Mgm / Kobal / Shutterstock

According to the actress, the film’s director, Charles Walters, wanted Shirley MacLaine for the role, not Reynolds. “He said ‘You are totally wrong for the part,’” the actress recalled. Reynolds took Walter’s remark as a challenge, and by week six of filming, he came to tell the actress that he had been mistaken and that she was doing a great job.

An Olive Branch

In 1966, Reynolds booked a cruise to Europe aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Little did she know that her ex-best friend, Elizabeth Taylor, had booked the same ship. By this point, Taylor had already married Burton, and Reynolds was with Karl. The actress decided to bury the hatchet and sent Taylor a handwritten note.

Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds, and Elizabeth Taylor in the film These Old Broads
Source: / Copyright: Sony Pictures, Columbia TriStar

The two actresses met for dinner on the ship, and the rest was history. “We just said, ‘Let’s call it a day.’ And we got smashed,” Reynolds told reporters years later. “We had a great evening and stayed friends since then.” The two went on to star in the 2001 film, These Old Broads, written by Carrie. Taylor passed away one month after the movie aired.

An Honest Fool

By 1970, Reynolds was the highest-paid female performer in Hollywood. She famously took a stance against promoting cigarettes when she abruptly quit her weekly television show, The Debbie Reynolds Show. When she signed the contract with NBC, Reynolds requested that the network not advertise cigarette brands during her show’s commercial breaks.

Don Chastain, Debbie Reynolds, Tom Bosley, and Patricia Smith sitting on couches in the living room on the Debbie Reynolds Show
The Debbie Reynolds Show. Photo by Nbc / Kobal / Shutterstock

The network played a commercial for Pall Mall during her show’s premiere, which made Reynolds feel uneasy especially given the number of kids who tuned in to watch her every week. After about a year, the actress quit, costing her $2 million in income. “Maybe I was a fool to quit the show, but at least I was an honest fool,” she later recalled. “With me, it wasn’t a question of money but integrity. I’m the one who has to live with myself.”

Turn for the Worst

While everything was going well for Reynolds professionally, things at home had taken a turn for the worse. The relationship had been off to a great start, but that all changed when Karl began to dip into Reynolds’ savings to spend money on prostitutes and gambling.

Debbie Reynolds and Harry Karl at an event together
Debbie Reynolds and Harry Karl. Photo by George Elam / Associated Newspapers / Shutterstock

When Karl died in 1982, Reynolds’ son says he was the only one from his family to shed a tear. The actress’ son also says that although Karl loved him and Carrie, he did some bad things to his mom. “I remember as a kid opening the door when my mother was away, and some beautiful woman would come in, go upstairs for 15 minutes and leave,” he later recalled.

Biggest Heartbreak of Them All

The couple eventually divorced in 1973, but Reynolds’ heartache was far from over. According to the actress, her relationship with Karl is what shattered her the most. All her savings were gone, and she and her kids were flat broke. “Of course, everything went, homes and everything, every bill he had, he owed $10 million, so then I got to pay that off,” Reynolds told Oprah Winfrey in 2011.

Photo by Max B. Miller/Fotos International/Getty Images

As time went on, more details of Karl’s slimy behavior began to surface. In the same interview, Carrie explained that Karl had a barber, and manicurists come to the house every day. The family soon found out that the barber was a pimp, and the manicurists were ladies of the night.

Third Time’s the Charm?

After her second divorce, Reynolds took a break from men to focus on what she loved best: acting. In 1973, she and Carrie made their Broadway debut in the revival of Irene. The production not only broke records for the highest weekly gross for a musical, but it also earned Reynolds a Tony nomination.

Debbie Reynolds posing with Richard Hamlett
Debbie Reynolds and Richard Hamlett. Photo by Fotos International / Shutterstock

The actress also opened her own dance studio in North Hollywood and released a series of workout videos. By 1984, Reynolds was ready to try out love one last time when she married her third husband, real estate developer Richard Hamlett. The pair met at a party the previous year while Reynolds was taping a TV special in Reno, Nevada.

A Hard Hit

According to Hamlett, he proposed to Reynolds, who was 51 at the time, on their first date. “I had known her through the movies and had this vision of this sweet gal next door,” the former real estate developer told People magazine in 2016. “And by dessert, I said to myself: ‘She really is Tammy.’”

Richard Hamlett and Debbie Reynolds at a red-carpet event together
Richard Hamlett and Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Bei / Shutterstock

After their wedding, Hamlett convinced Reynolds to purchase a casino and hotel in Las Vegas, which eventually went bust. Unfortunately, Reynolds’ bank account couldn’t take another hit, and she was forced to declare bankruptcy. According to Reynolds, she “married the devil.” Not only did he make a bunch of poor business decisions, but he was unfaithful to her. After 12 years of marriage, Reynolds filed for divorce.

Sleeping on the Floor

Reynolds wasn’t the only one to experience the ups and downs of her career and love life. Her two kids, Carrie and Todd, were also along for the ride. With a successful career to maintain, the actress couldn’t put all of her efforts into raising her kids. In Carrie’s memoir, she remembered wanting to spend all day with her mother whenever she would come home for the weekends.

Todd Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher at an event in 1998
Todd Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, and Carrie Fisher. Photo by Stewart Cook / Shutterstock

But this mostly involved watching her mother dress up, put on makeup, or sleep. “I slept on the rug on the floor next to her bed, and my brother slept on the couch near the window,” Carrie wrote. “In the morning, when Todd and I got up, we would creep out of her room so we wouldn’t wake her.”

She’s Mine!

As Carrie grew older, she had a hard time with the idea that her mother “belonged to the world” as much as she belonged to her two children. Whenever Carrie would go out in public with her mother, they were always interrupted by Reynolds’ fans.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds dressed up standing in front of a pink curtain circa 1972
Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Globe Photos / Shutterstock

“When we went out, people sort of walked over me to get to her, and no, I didn’t like it,” Carrie told reporters from The New York Times. She also remembers people comparing her to her mother, something Carrie says was hard to deal with. “I think it was when I was ten that I realized with profound certainty that I would not be, and was in no way now, the beauty that my mother was,” Carrie wrote in her memoir.

The Family Bookworm

Not only did Carrie have to deal with her famous mother, but she had to deal with her distant father, who only became more distant after he left Reynolds for Taylor. In an attempt to impress her father, Carrie would read for hours on end. Although her family began to make fun of her, and her father remained unimpressed, Carrie began to fall in love with words.

Carrie and Eddie Fisher hugging in New York 1988
Carrie and Eddie Fisher. Photo by Adam Scull / Shutterstock

By 12 years old, Carrie had begun to write, which she says was a therapeutic outlet for me to deal with everything going on back at home. “I wrote things to get them out of feeling them and onto paper,” she said in her memoir. “So, writing in a way saved me, kept me company.”

Always Out of Reach

Although Carrie says that she saw her father more on TV than in real life, she still found herself trying to have a close relationship with him. However, he was often unavailable, leaving Carrie to find comfort in other men. “My father was a short Jewish man,” she once told reporters. “My husband [Paul Simon] was a short Jewish man. Go figure.”

Paul Simon, Carrie Fisher, Art Garfunkel, and Penny Marshall at the theater in 1982
Paul Simon, Carrie Fisher, Art Garfunkel, and Penny Marshall. Photo by Alan Davidson / Shutterstock

In Carrie’s mind, her father was defined more by his absence than his presence. As she grew older, Carrie realized that the only way she could have her father in her life was to take care of him. If she expected anything more from him, like to be a present parent, she was always left disappointed.

Love and Acceptance

Although Carrie struggled with her sometimes rocky relationship with her mother, the two remained extremely close later in life. The two lived next door to each other in Los Angeles and even shared a driveway. Carrie wrote in her memoir that her mother was still “a little eccentric,” but it’s those little quirks that made her love Reynolds that much more.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher on the red carpet in 2015
Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher. Photo by Matt Baron / BEI / Shutterstock

“Whenever she calls, she says: ‘Hello, dear, this is your mother, Debbie,” she wrote. “My brother and I talk this way to each other now: ‘Hello dear, this is your brother, Todd.’” Another one of Reynolds’ eccentricities, according to Carrie, was repeatedly suggesting that she should have had a baby with her last husband because the baby would have had “nice eyes.”

Like Mother, Like Daughter

Carrie made her acting debut at the young age of 13, as a part of Reynolds’ nightclub act. In 2017, the pair’s professional lives realigned once more through their documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Carrie said that she wanted to make the film because of Reynold’s declining health.

Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds performing on stage
Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. Photo by Kobal / Shutterstock

While acting and performing is something that gave Reynolds life, Carrie said that it also took the life out of her. As Reynolds grew older, it took her longer to recover from performances, which proved problematic because of her work ethic. Reynolds was the type of person who would finish a performance and want to go back on stage the following night.

A Great Role Model

Like her mother, Carrie was known to blur the lines between her public and private life, including sharing details about her relationship with her mother. Carrie dedicated her 2016 memoir to her mother, showing fans just how close the two were. “I love you, but that whole emergency, almost dying thing, wasn’t funny,” the Star Wars actress wrote. “Don’t even THINK about doing it again in any form.”

Carrie Fisher in Star Wards Episode Vi
Photo by Lucasfilm / Fox / Kobal / Shutterstock

Carrie said how much Reynolds taught her, including how to “sur-thrive.” She says that her mother repeatedly went through difficult situations but never gave up. She proved time and time again that doing the impossible is, in fact, possible.

An Untimely Ending

Unfortunately, this story has a heartbreaking ending. On December 23, 2016, Carrie was flying home to celebrate Christmas with her family when she suffered a massive heart attack. She was rushed to the emergency room in Los Angeles and was admitted to the hospital’s ICU ward. The actress passed away four days later. She was 60 years old.

Carrie Fisher on the red carpet in 2016
Photo by Broadimage / Shutterstock

Initial reports mention that drugs had been found in her system, but it was unclear if the drugs contributed to her death. The report also said that Carrie had a history of sleep apnoea. According to Reynold’s close friend, Sue Cameron, everything was prepared to celebrate Christmas as a family. Reynolds had already set the table, created the menu, and decorated the house before she received the tragic news.

Death by a Broken Heart

The day after Carrie died, Reynolds passed away. She was 84 years old. While doctors say that she had several underlying conditions and may have suffered from a stroke, her son Todd believes that she died from a broken heart. By all accounts, she and Carrie were so close that this very well could have been the cause.

Debbie Reynolds giving Carrie Fisher a kiss on the cheek on the red carpet
Photo by Broadimage / Shutterstock

According to Dr. Suzanne Steinbaum, learning about the death of a loved one causes an overflow of stress hormones that put a lot of strain on the heart. “It appears to be a massive heart attack,” but, she said, “the heart is literally stunned.” Whether Reynolds’ death was from heartbreak or not is still up for debate. But one thing’s for sure: She and Carrie had an unbreakable bond.