“A long time ago … I realized that I loved to sing, dance, and make people laugh,” Debbie Reynolds said in 2002. “The trick is finding something that you like and sticking with it.” The Oscar-nominated star from Hollywood’s Golden Age stuck with what she loved for more than 60 years, until her death Wednesday evening at the age of 84.
Reynolds’ death comes the day after her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, died unexpectedly at age 60. Reynolds was at Fisher’s estate Wednesday when she suffered a possible stroke and was rushed to the hospital. Her son, Todd Fisher, confirmed her death to multiple outlets including Variety, TMZ, and the Associated Press. “She wanted to be with Carrie,” he told Variety. Reynolds released a statement about Fisher’s death on Dec. 27, thanking fans for their support and for embracing “the gifts and talents of my beloved and amazing daughter.”
Born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932, she got her first break at 16, when Warner Bros. signed the newly crowned Miss Burbank as a contract player and gave her the stage name “Debbie.” The bubbly, wholesome actress quickly became America’s Sweetheart, appearing in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and marrying pop idol Eddie Fisher, with whom she had two children. Fisher left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor in 1958, setting in motion a messy divorce and public relations scandal that Carrie Fisher would later liken to the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie saga of the 21st century. Reynolds was the Jennifer Aniston in the scenario, the apple-cheeked All-American Girl wronged by love.
Reynolds earned her first and only Oscar nomination in 1964 for the musical comedy The Unsinkable Molly Brown and went on to star in her own short-lived NBC sitcom, The Debbie Reynolds Show. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, she worked primarily on the stage — in 1974, she earned a Best Actress Tony nomination for the musical revival Irene — but returned to top form on the big screen in 1996 when Albert Brooks cast her as the acerbic title character in Mother, a role that earned her a Golden Globe nomination. In 2000, she won an Emmy for her recurring role as Debra Messing’s feisty mom on NBC’s Will and Grace.
In her later years, Reynolds toured the country with her successful nightclub act. In 2010, she starred in her own West End show, Debbie Reynolds: Alive and Fabulous. A lifelong collector of movie memorabilia, she was to oversee the relocation of the Debbie Reynolds’ Hollywood Motion Picture Museum in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. But those plans were scrapped in 2009 when the developer went bankrupt. Instead, Reynolds auctioned off much of her collection, including Marilyn Monroe’s white subway dress from The Seven-Year Itch. In 2013, Reynolds released a memoir, Unsinkable, and appeared that same year in the HBO movie Behind the Candelabra, playing Liberace’s mother. In 2015, she was honored with the SAG Life Achievement Award, which was presented by her daughter.
“She has been more than a mother to me, not much, but definitely more. She’s been an unsolicited stylist, interior decorator, and marriage counselor,” Fisher said. “Admittedly, I found it difficult to share my mother with her adoring fans, who treated her like she was part of their family. She has led two lives, public and private, sometimes concurrently, sometimes not.”
Reynolds, accepting that award, told the crowd that her all-time favorite role was Singin’ in the Rain and made reference to her turn in The Unsinkable Molly Brown. “In that movie, I got to sing a wonderful song ‘I Ain’t Down Yet,'” she said. “Well, I ain’t.”