The famed dancer died 12 years ago, and the battle of his work began

By EW Staff
Updated June 18, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

During his lifetime, Fred Astaire epitomized grace, elegance, and the sublimity of style. In death, however, he left behind a decidedly earthbound legacy of messy squabbles over the control of his image. The disparity was, in Astaire terms, night and day.

Astaire died on June 22, 1987, at age 88, from pneumonia. He passed away while being held by his second wife, Robyn. ”That’s the way he wanted it,” she said. ”He died holding on to me.” The eulogies that came were unequivocal: ”Wrap up the 20th century,” mourned Newsweek. ”Fred Astaire is gone.”

Indeed, Astaire’s artistic legacy is incontrovertible. The 31 films he made in 35 years — 10 of them with the perfect partner, Ginger Rogers — established the canon of the American musical. The dazzling dance numbers he created in such films as Top Hat (1935), Swing Time (1936), and The Gay Divorcee (1934) were breathtaking in execution, as well as inspirational to a generation of moviegoers-cum-dance students. Said Stanley Donen, who directed the star in Funny Face: ”When Fred Astaire danced, everything in this world was perfect.”

Alas, once the dancing stopped, the real world bristled with imperfection. Astaire’s death left the rights to his film clips in the hands of his widow, a former jockey who was 46 years his junior when they married in 1980. Robyn Astaire became a zealous guardian of her husband’s image. When the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts asked for permission to air clips for its 1992 tribute to Ginger Rogers, she refused. (Robyn claimed the producers wanted rights in perpetuity; they said they’d asked for one-time use only.) Production on 1994’s That’s Entertainment! III was reportedly delayed because Astaire wanted hefty payments for her husband’s scenes. And in 1989, when Best Film & Video released an instructional video that included 90 seconds of Astaire footage, Robyn sued, taking the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (which left intact a ruling that threw out her case).

Then in 1997, Robyn licensed Astaire’s image for Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner spots, which showed the star dancing with a cordless Broom Vac. Purists howled. Fred’s daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie, said she was ”saddened that after Fred’s wonderful career, he was sold to the devil.”

Robyn defended herself, saying she was doing only what Fred would have wanted. ”I’ve had to deplete much of my financial security over the years to prosecute infringers,” she has said. ”I just feel Fred would have wanted me to do these commercials.” She may be right; after all, this was a man who was able to create magic just by dancing with a broom.

Time Capsule: June 22, 1987

AT THE MOVIES: The Witches of Eastwick, starring Cher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeiffer, casts its spell on audiences to take the nation’s top box office spot.
IN RECORD STORES: Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam’s ”Head to Toe” sits atop the singles chart.
IN BOOK-STORES: Stephen King’s chiller Misery is the No. 1 fiction best-seller.
AND IN THE NEWS: the Nation of Islam’s controversial leader, Louis Farrakhan, announces he will not publicly endorse Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign because it will hurt Jackson’s chances with white voters.