Reynolds, Mary Frances [Debbie] (1932–2016)

By: Sheena Lee Cox and Laurie E. Jasinski

Type: Biography

Published: August 18, 2021

Updated: August 18, 2021


Debbie Reynolds, actress, singer, and dancer, was born Mary Frances Reynolds on April 1, 1932, to Maxine (Harmon) Reynolds and Raymond Francis Reynolds at the Masonic Hospital in El Paso, Texas. She had one sibling, older brother William Owen “Bill” Reynolds. At the time of her birth, her father worked as a filling station operator. When Mary was seven, the Reynolds family, in search of economic opportunities, moved to Burbank, California. A listing on the 1940 U. S. census shows that her father worked for the railroads as a “Tender Man” (carpenter). Mary Reynolds attended John Burroughs High School in Burbank.  

After winning the Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948, Reynolds was discovered by a Warner Brothers talent scout. This led to her motion picture debut, at age sixteen, in a small role in the Warner Brothers film June Bride (1948). She subsequently appeared in the musical The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady (1950). Her role as singer Helen Kane in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) musical Three Little Words (1950) earned for her a Golden Globe nomination for New Star of the Year, and she signed a contract with MGM. Upon MGM’S suggestion she changed her name to Debbie Reynolds. In Two Weeks With Love (1950) her duet with Carleton Carpenter on “Aba Daba Honeymoon” reached Number 3 on the Billboard charts in 1951.

In 1952 Reynolds secured her first leading role—that of Kathy Selden in Singin’ in the Rain, a movie lauded as “one of the greatest Hollywood musicals ever produced.” At only nineteen years old, Reynolds had no prior formal dance training before taking on the role alongside dance veterans Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, and she later admitted that it was one of the most difficult tasks of her lifetime. Reynolds continued to add to her resume with a list of movie appearances, including The Affairs of Doby Gillis (1953), Susan Slept Here (1954), The Tender Trap (1955) with Frank Sinatra, and The Catered Affair (1956).

Debbie Reynolds married singer/actor Eddie Fisher on September 26, 1955. They starred together in Bundle of Joy the following year. They had two children—daughter Carrie became a well-known actress in her own right, and son Todd became a successful director/producer.

In 1957 Reynolds scored a Number 1 hit on the Billboard charts with “Tammy,” from the movie Tammy and the Bachelor (1957). The song stayed on the charts for more than twenty weeks, went gold, and was nominated for Best Original Song by the Academy Awards. Reynolds recorded her first album, Debbie, with Dot Records in 1959. Other Billboard Top 40 hits included “A Very Special Love” (1958) and “Am I that Easy to Forget” (1960). Her album Fine and Dandy came out on the Dot label in 1960.

Reynolds and Fisher divorced in 1959, and their breakup was the subject of much Hollywood gossip as a result of Fisher’s affair with Elizabeth Taylor. In 1960 Reynolds married businessman, Harry Karl. The two had a troubled marriage that was damaged further by Karl’s gambling habits. The couple divorced in 1973.

Reynolds maintained an active career in film in the 1960s with roles in How the West Was Won (1962), Mary, Mary (1963), and Goodbye Charlie (1964). In The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) she portrayed Titanic survivor Margaret Brown, a role that Reynolds described as her “favorite” and for which she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. She played Belgian nun Jeanine Deckers in The Singing Nun (1966), and the movie’s musical repertoire included the popular song “Dominique.” By the late 1960s, however, Reynolds’s film career slowed down, though her movies included Divorce American Style (1967) and How Sweet It Is (1968). From 1969 to 1970 she starred in her own television situation comedy, The Debbie Reynolds Show and earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Actress.

Reynolds was the memorable voice of Charlotte in the animated children’s film Charlotte’s Web (1973). That same year she appeared on the Broadway stage with her debut in a production of Irene; she received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical. She starred in the leading role of Annie Get Your Gun in a production of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera in 1977. In 1983 she starred in the Broadway play Woman of the Year. In 1989 she toured with The Unsinkable Molly Brown musical.

After the heyday of her movie career, Reynolds performed on the night club circuit and by the 1980s was a featured star in Las Vegas, where she opened the Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino in 1993. She married Richard Hamlet in 1984, but his gambling addiction eventually led to her filing for divorce in 1996. Unable to manage the finances of the hotel and casino, she filed for personal bankruptcy, and the establishment was auctioned in 1998. Reynolds attributed her financial troubles to the poor gambling habits of her husband.

Reynolds returned to the movie screen in a number of roles, including It Started with a Kiss (1982), The Bodyguard (1992), Heaven & Earth (1993), Mother (1996), In and Out (1997), The Rat Race (2001), and One for the Money (2012). She also acted in television roles, including the short-lived series Aloha Paradise (1981) and guest spots on The Love Boat (1980), Hotel (1986), The Golden Girls (1991) Roseanne (1997), and others. She earned five Golden Globe nominations and one Emmy Award nomination for her reoccurring appearances on the series Will & Grace, which debuted in 1998. In 2013 she had a celebrated part in HBO’s Behind the Candelabra, in which she starred as Liberace’s mother. She won a Life Achievement Award from the Screen Actors Guild in 2015, and she was honored with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award the same year. She received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2016.

She opened her own dance studio in Hollywood in 1979 and in the 1980s created two exercise videotapes titled Do it Debbie’s Way. Reynolds published three autobiographies, Debbie: My Life (with David Patrick Columbia, 1988), Unsinkable: A Memoir (with Dorian Hannaway, 2013), and Make ‘Em Laugh: Short-Term Memories of Longtime Friends (with Dorian Hannaway, 2015). She received an honorary doctorate from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2007.

Reynolds owned one of the single largest personal collections of movie memorabilia. She began her collection in 1970 when MGM sold the items of seven soundstages. Her eventual goal was to open a museum and share her treasures with the fans, and she housed her collection in a museum in her hotel, but her financial difficulties forced her to sell off many pieces in the late 1990s. As a result of her efforts, in 2005, she won the President’s Award at the Costume Designers Guild “for her collection and conservation of classic Hollywood costumes.” Her son Todd inherited what remained of the collection. Reynolds also dedicated more than sixty years of her life to the Thalians, a charitable organization she helped found as a young actress in 1955. She was elected president of the organization in 1957 and kept that role on and off over the years. The charity donated millions to mental health rehabilitation and to provide for medical and psychological services for wounded veterans and their families.  

Reynolds regularly gave musical performances until her death. She remained close to her two children, especially daughter Carrie, and Todd assisted her with business affairs. Only one day after Carrie Fisher’s death on December 27, 2016, Debbie Reynolds died suddenly from a stroke on December 28, 2016, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Her son Todd noted, “She wanted to be with Carrie.” Reynolds was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park cemetery among the Hollywood Hills in Los Angeles, California. In 2017 the film documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, in which the two appear together, aired on HBO just weeks after their passing. In 2020 the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures conservation studio was officially named the Debbie Reynolds Conservation Studio, and plans were in the works to exhibit items from her collection of memorabilia, which was managed by her son Todd.

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All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), accessed August 2, 2021. Mike Barnes and Ryan Parker, “Debbie Reynolds, Spirited Star of ‘Singin’ in the Rain,’ Dies at 84,” Billboard, December 28, 2016 (https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/obituary/7639999/debbie-reynolds-dead/), accessed August 3, 2021. Las Vegas Sun, July 31, 1998. New York Times, February 28, 1983; November 17, 2020. Anna Paulson, Debbie Reynolds: A Biography (CreateSpace Publishing, 2016). Debbie Reynolds (https://www.debbiereynolds.com/), accessed July 14, 2021. Debbie Reynolds, IMDb (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001666/), accessed July 14, 2021. Debbie Reynolds and Dorian Hannaway, Unsinkable: A Memoir (New York: HarperCollins, 2013). Variety, December 28, 2016.

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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Sheena Lee Cox and Laurie E. Jasinski, “Reynolds, Mary Frances [Debbie],” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed January 21, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/reynolds-mary-frances-debbie.

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August 18, 2021
August 18, 2021

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