The dancer who paved his own way is working on his autobiography while advising new artists in dance

By Gregg Kilday
Updated May 13, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

When the MGM lion roars at the start of That’s Entertainment! III, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s latest musical reprise from its fabled vaults, nostalgia buffs are likely to experience a sentimental thrill. But Gene Kelly, who serves as one of the movie’s on-screen hosts and is also seen in some classic musical numbers, doesn’t feel that way.

”MGM has changed executives and hands many times. It’s just a bunch of buildings,” says the 81-year-old dancer, choreographer, actor, and director. ”MGM never put on those numbers anyway-the creative people did.”

Sitting in the wood-paneled living room of his Beverly Hills home, which was rebuilt after a 1983 fire nearly destroyed it, Kelly, dressed in a turtleneck and sport coat, looks and sounds like Hollywood gentry. But as he relives his glory days, the scrappy kid from Pittsburgh, who refused to dance in top hat and tails and instead rolled up his sleeves and perfected his own style of casual masculinity, pushes to the fore.

”I wanted to dance like the guy on the street,” Kelly says. ”People here didn’t like it-especially at MGM. But (studio chief) Louis B. Mayer was more interested in his racehorses when I came out here, which was lucky for me.”

Kelly, who was hospitalized last week for cellulitis, recalls his partners far more fondly. Judy Garland, with whom he starred in 1942’s For Me and My Gal, was ”a hoofer; she could copy anything.” Of leggy Cyd Charisse, he laughs, ”I sexy-ed her up in 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, for which she has always been grateful.”

Nowadays, when he isn’t working on his autobiography with his wife, Pat, 35, or collaborating with director Kenny Ortega (Newsies) on a ballet based on An American in Paris, Kelly dispenses advice to a new generation of performers. He helped Paula Abdul plan a movie musical that she later abandoned in favor of a world tour, and he flew to London to consult with Madonna about her Girlie Show, although the number they discussed never made it into the show. Still, Kelly is down on those artists’ primary outlet for dance: music video. ”All those one- or two-second cuts-feet, breast, face, full-figure-the kids don’t have to train to carry a number. And none of it’s romantic. The bedrock of the old musicals was romance. Kids nowadays, they want to do musicals, but the music is gone. But,” he adds, ”I think it will come back.” It’s nice to know Gene Kelly is still a romantic about some things.