On this day in 1996, Eugene Curran Kelly, perhaps the greatest hoofer in American history, passes peacefully in his Beverly Hills home at 83. The driven dancer, stage and screen actor, singer, film director, producer, and choreographer was known for his energetic and athletic dancing style, his good looks, and the likable characters he played on screen.
Of second-generation Irish and German extraction, Kelly was born in the East Liberty neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Forced by their mother to take dance lessons early on, Kelly and his brother routinely got into scrapes with the neighborhood toughs growing up. Gene and Fred ran a dance studio and performed in local nightclubs while Gene acquired an economics degree and was admitted to law school; after two months, he bolted for New York and eventual fame.
Kelly was featured in nearly 50 films, including Anchors Aweigh, An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, received numerous honors and awards and is ranked number 15 among the American Film Institute’s “Greatest Male Legends” of Classic Hollywood.
Ironically, while Kelly sported easy Irish charm and amiability in front of the camera, he was a brutal conditioning coach when it came to the real work of dancing, often driving partners and cast members to tears. Kelly’s appearances dwindled with the slow fade of the musical genre, but of his considerable prowess, Debbie Reynolds remembered Kelly as “a great dancer . . . a cinematic genius [whose] work will influence films forever.” Remarking on his own origins, Kelly himself said “I got started dancing because I knew it was one way to meet girls.”