The Untold Truth Of Debbie Reynolds

Hollywood lost another icon on Dec. 28, 2016, when actress Debbie Reynolds suffered a fatal stroke just a day after her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, passed away following a heart attack. Reynolds, 84, was one of the last grand dames from Hollywood's golden era. Her passing leaves a hole in the hearts of many, especially her son, Todd Fisher, and her granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd, who must now bury two family members. From Singin' in the Rain (1952) to Charlotte's Web (1973), Reynolds has entertained audiences for decades. Let's take a look back at her illustrious life and some of the triumphant and traumatic events that shaped it.

Humble beginnings

Reynolds wasn't born into the Hollywood lifestyle. A native of El Paso, Texas, her family was so poor that at one point they lived in a cellar with a dirt floor, reported Texas Monthly. While she grew up idolizing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, mowing lawns to earn the money to see their movies, Reynolds didn't dream of becoming a star. Instead, she wanted to be a gym teacher. The family relocated to Burbank, Calif. when she was 7, and it was the Reynolds' poverty, in part, which led to her discovery by Hollywood agents. She reportedly developed a talent for impressions and comedy to distract classmates from her humble wardrobe. "Instead of cashmere, I wore a comic routine," she wrote in one of her books.

From rags to riches

In a 1974 documentary called That's Entertainment, Reynolds talked about her first big break. "I was only 16 when I entered the Miss Burbank contest," she said (via NPR). "I did it as a lark to get a blouse and a scarf that they were giving away to all the contestants." After Reynolds won the contest, two talent agents who were judging the pageant reportedly flipped a coin to decide who got to sign her. The agent from Warner Bros. won the toss, and the next day, Reynolds rode her bike to the studio to do her first screen test. She told CBS News she was clueless at that audition: "And they said, 'Well, you want to be a movie star, don't you?' And I said, 'No. I don't know anything about it. I'm just here 'cause I won this contest, and I got a free blouse and scarf. I don't know what you guys are doing wasting your time on me.' So [studio president] Jack Warner saw the test, and he said, 'Well, she's funny. Let's put her under contract, $65 a week.'"

A new name

She was born Mary Frances Reynolds, but it was the stage name, "Debbie," given to her by Jack Warner, that would make a mark upon the world. After signing the 16-year-old Reynolds to a contract with Warner Bros., the studio president supposedly selected the new moniker thinking, "Debbie is a cute name for a little girl."

Early career

Reynolds early career closely mirrored that of her daughter's. Both got their start with minor roles as fresh-faced teens: Reynolds as singer Helen Kane, in the 1950 musical Three Little Words, and Carrie as a love interest for Warren Beatty's character in the 1975 movie Shampoo. Both women received their big breaks at age 19: Reynolds with the massive musical movie Singin' in the Rain opposite the legendary Gene Kelly, and Carrie in George Lucas' monumental science fiction saga, Star Wars.

A four-letter word

Reynold's squeaky-clean image often served her well, particularly when landing parts in the wholesome female roles that were popular after World War II. She also played the innocent, jilted lover in real life after her husband, Eddie Fisher, famously left her for her friend, fellow starlet Elizabeth Taylor, in 1958. Reynolds soldiered on, earning an Oscar nomination for her role as the title character in 1964's The Unsinkable Molly Brown. Later in her career, Reynolds began to resent the industry typecasting her as the virginal girl-next-door, which had made it harder to land good roles as Hollywood shifted to a more risqué depiction of women in the late '60s. As she put it in her 1988 autobiography, "I was like Doris Day and Donna Reed: cute, cute, cute—the ruination of careers."

Always working

Despite her difficulty landing more diverse roles, Reynolds never stopped working. In the '70s, she launched a revival of her career with various Broadway and stage gigs, including Irene in 1973, in which she appeared alongside her daughter. Later in life, Reynolds toured with her musical act, performed extensively in Vegas, and returned to television as the mother of actress Debra Messing's character on the hit sitcom Will & Grace (1998-2006). Most recently, she appeared as Liberace's mother in 2013's Behind the Candelabra—a role she greatly enjoyed because of her personal friendship with both "Lee" (as she called Liberace) and his mother.

In addition to her acting chops, Reynolds was also a talented singer. She scored a gold record with the song "Tammy" in 1957, a tune based on her titular role in Tammy and the Bachelor. She followed that up with more Billboard hit songs in both 1958 with "A Very Special Love," and 1960 with "Am I That Easy to Forget." Fans of the 1973 animated adaptation of Charlotte's Web will also remember Reynolds' signature sound as the speaking and singing voice of Charlotte.

On my honor, I will try

Reynolds was a lifelong advocate for Girl Scouts, having been a Scout herself for nearly a decade, completing 47 of the 100 badges available at the time. Reynolds later became a troop leader and headed up the Girl Scout Piper Project—a membership initiative she promoted by recording a song and performing with troops across the country. Reynolds remained a registered member of the organization for the rest of her life. In 2013, she told USA Today, "I want to die as the world's oldest living Girl Scout. I've been one for 70 years. It is such a good program, and it helped me in my youth."

Shut up and dance

According to the Girl Scouts official blog, Reynolds experience with the organization helped her shine in showbiz. She landed her starring role in Singin' in the Rain at 17, despite having no formal training. "Unaware that she had no real dance experience, Kelly asked her if she could do a time-step, and she happily replied, 'Yes, I learned it at Girl Scout camp!'"

Little did she know what would be in store for her during filming. While Reynolds knew the basics, she had her work cut out for her to keep up with the talented Kelly and Donald O'Connor. "We danced 10, 12 hours every day. There were no days off," she told CBS News. During the film's famous "Good Morning" scene, the trio reportedly danced from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. "My feet were bleeding from all that dancing," she told the Sunday Express, "and when I pointed it out, Gene would say 'Clean it up!' He was very sentimental like that!"

Though Reynolds described Kelly as a "hard taskmaster," she appreciated his tutelage. She told CBS News, "Gene Kelly kind of scared me, because he was the boss, and he was brilliant, and he was a wonderful teacher. He had to teach me. And to be given a little kitty cat, and expect it to be a lion, it didn't happen overnight. I had to work, work, work without question."

An unexpected mentor

Rehersals for Singin' in the Rain became so grueling that Reynolds once hid under a piano to cry. Guess who found her there and provided the pep talk of a lifetime?

"Fred Astaire came by and he reached down, and he said, 'Now, who is that?'" Reynolds told NPR. "He invited me in to watch him rehearse—nobody got to watch him dance, and he let me watch him until he was just red in the face, and it showed me, even the greats find it hard to be really excellent, but you have to keep striving."

One smart cookie

Reynolds was more than a pretty face. While she has said she was not good at "math or marriage," Reynolds deployed her keen intellect and sense of humor in more than one situation to get her way. In 1974, robbers reportedly targeted the recently-divorced Reynolds in her Beverly Hills home, but she managed to convince them that all of her jewelry was fake, and they left empty-handed, reported Texas Monthly.

Blazing the trail for AIDS awareness

Years before U.S. President Ronald Reagan publicly acknowledged the disease in an address, Reynolds was headlining AIDS awareness events. At one such benefit in 1983, she caused a stir by introducing her friend and surprise guest, actress Shirley MacLaine, with a comment about her great legs. MacLaine responded by pulling down the top of her dress to flash the cheering crowd.

Author Randy Shilts described the scene in his book And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic: "Not to be outdone, Reynolds lifted the rear of her slitted gown to reveal her black underwear. 'Debbie's Tammy image is blown forever,' sighed one realtor in the audience." Image aside, Reynolds was a pioneer for the cause at a time when few stars would even mention the disease. According to Shilts, "Most other stars, including many who had built their careers on their gay followings, were not inclined to get involved with a disease that was not...fashionable."


Much like her daughter, Reynolds was not fortunate with her romances. First, she fell in love with Fisher—against the advice of her pal Sinatra. Reynolds recalled that exchange during an interview with NPR in 2013. "Frank Sinatra always gave people advice, and he said, 'Now, I know you're engaged to Eddie, but I don't want you to marry a singer, because none of us are faithful, and he won't be, and I'm not. We're just awful, so don't do it.'"

The couple had two children together—Carrie and her younger brother Todd—before Eddie famously left Reynolds for Taylor in 1958. At the time, Taylor was grieving the death of her husband, Mike Todd— Eddie's best friend—who'd died in a plane crash. The headline-grabbing divorce caused Eddie to lose his ongoing television series and his record contract.

Reynolds warned her ex-husband that his fling with Taylor wouldn't last. "I warned Eddie that she'd kick him out in a year and a half—and that's exactly what happened, which gave me at least a little comfort." she told NPR.

Years later, Taylor and Reynolds rekindled their friendship during a chance encounter on a cruise ship. "We decided, being bright girls...we would get over the problems that existed, and we sent each other a note saying, let's move on with our life, and let's get onto the happy side. So we did, on that trip," Reynolds told NPR.

Fool me thrice

Reynolds' later marriages fared no better than her first. A year after her divorce from Eddie, she wed millionaire shoe magnate Harry Karl, but that union took a bad turn when Reynolds realized he'd gambled away her fortune. The pair divorced in 1973, saddling Reynolds with more than $10 million in debt. It took her a decade to repay that money "and I've never forgiven him for that," she told the Los Angeles Times.

Reynolds married real-estate developer Richard Hamlett in 1984. In her 1988 autobiography, she called him "brave, loyal and loving," but all was not well behind-the-scenes. Hamlett was allegedly cheating on her, even inviting three other women on their honeymoon cruise behind his bride's back. Hamlett also exacerbated Reynold's financial woes. According to USA Today, he embezzled funds from her Las Vegas casino and from her personal accounts. A year after their divorce in 1996, Reynolds filed for bankruptcy.

Reynolds reflected on her troubled love life in a 2013 interview with USA Today: "I was stupid — really dumb. Three strikes and you're out. I've never been able to judge men properly," she said. "It really hurt me so much...but I feel more clear-headed about it now. I am happy to be by myself. I'm not going to marry again. And I don't date—I'm going to be 81 in about five seconds and probably will be dead a year after that."

Her biggest fear

Reynolds has been outspoken about her daughter's struggles with bipolar disorder. In her 2013 memoir, Unsinkable (via, Reynolds talks about these difficulties: "It's heartbreaking to watch someone you love struggle so. As a mother, I find the hardest thing for me is to love my daughter and not to intervene in her life. I want to do everything humanly possible to keep my girl out of pain, to pick her up when she's down. If I could, I would suffer for her."

In the memoir, Reynolds describes her greatest fear in life: "It's not natural to outlive your child...I don't know if I could survive that. I'm so grateful to Carrie for working so hard to stay well when sometimes it might seem easier to give up."

A fear come true

Reynolds' greatest fear came true on Dec. 27, 2016, when Carrie passed away from complications connected to cardiac arrest. That day, Reynolds reached out to the public via her Facebook page: "Thank you to everyone who has embraced the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter. I am grateful for your thoughts and prayers that are now guiding her to her next stop. Love, Carrie's Mother."

The next day, while planning the funeral with her son, Todd, Reynolds reportedly suffered a stroke and died at the hospital several hours later. According to Todd, Reynolds' last words were, "I miss her so much, I want to be with Carrie."

As the world gives this mother and daughter duo its final curtain call through a veil of tears, their deaths have served as a powerful reminder of their close but tumultuous relationship. One of their last powerful public appearances together occurred when Carrie presented Reynolds with the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award, delivering an introduction that was equal parts caring and comical, tender and telling.

In the wake of their deaths, one fan summed it up for many with a widely retweeted remark referencing Carrie's first novel: "Any Postcards From the Edge fan has to darkly appreciate the thunder stealing." To which, fellow showman Patton Oswalt responded, "Carrie would've LOVED this Tweet and, maybe through you, she sent it?"