Debbie Reynolds’ string of nightmares began after Eddie Fisher abandoned her for Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal was a massive humiliation, but this was only the beginning.
From then on, every tragedy Reynolds endured would be worse than the last, culminating in a demise so unspeakable—it shook Hollywood to its core.
Born Mary Frances Reynolds in 1932, little Debbie Reynolds was far from the glamorous movie star she was destined to be. At the age of seven, it took more than the sparkle and lights of Hollywood to impress the California newcomer.
She was a downright tomboy, who loved sports and didn't care for fancy clothes. However, an unexpected twist of fate sent her hurtling in a new direction.
Born during the height of the Great Depression, Reynolds' family barely had enough money. But that wasn't all. As a teenager, she was not winning any popularity contests: She never wore the trendiest clothes or drove, and she certainly wasn't getting any dates.
But when she was 16, Debbie Reynolds took a chance and entered the Miss Burbank beauty contest. The outcome surprised everyone.
Nobody ever expected an underdog like Debbie Reynolds to win a beauty contest, but the judges saw something special in the young girl...and they weren't the only ones.
Talent scouts from both Warner Bros and MGM witnessed the blossoming potential in Reynolds and jumped at the chance to sign her. After that, her life changed forever.
In the blink of an eye, Debbie Reynolds went from nerdy schoolgirl to prized starlet. Both Warner and Bros and MGM wanted her in their corner—and they resolved this conflict in an ingenious way.
Instead of starting a bidding competition, they simply flipped a coin. Warner Bros won the toss, and immediately signed Reynolds. However, her transformation into a budding movie star wasn't easy.
Debbie Reynolds had a lot of rough edges to iron out and she later admitted, "When I started, I didn't even know how to dress. I wore dungarees and a shirt. I had no money, no taste, and no training". But that wasn't all.
Warner Bros also wasn't sold on her name—Mary Frances Reynolds. In fact, they wanted to change her name entirely.
Mary Frances Reynolds became Debbie Reynolds after many compromises. She adamantly refused to change her last name but finally surrendered her first name. She became Debbie Reynolds. A new name for a new life.
But as Reynolds would soon learn, acting wasn't always as effortless as it looked on screen.
In one of her first pictures, The Daughter of Rosie O'Grady, Reynolds faced a burning humiliation. The studio thought her ears were too big and had the makeup department glue her ears to the side of her head. But that wasn't the worst part.
To add insult to injury, the glue would dissolve under the hot lights on set, popping her ears back out. However, when it came to traumatizing film sets, this was only the beginning.
After Warner Bros announced that they would no longer be producing musicals, Reynolds hopped over to MGM—and made the biggest splash possible.
Still relatively unknown, her standout performance in Two Weeks with Love produced a huge hit. This impressed the studio so much, they handed her the role of a lifetime.
Not only was Debbie Reynolds making more money than she ever dreamed of, but she was also about to catapult to fame with her performance in Singin' In the Rain. However, there was one big problem.
Reynolds was not a dancer, and for this reason, the famous dance master himself, Gene Kelly, did not want her as his co-star.
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The flawless musical number "Good Morning" in Singin' in the Rain, showcased three stars at the top of their games: Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds. But behind the scenes, it was a downright nightmare.
Reynolds' feet were covered in painful blisters from dancing for hours on end—and that wasn't the most shocking part.
Gene Kelly was notorious for working himself into the ground, and he expected the same from his co-stars. For the memorable tap scene to the song "Good Morning," shooting began in the morning...but didn't end until 11 pm. At this point, Reynolds was so exhausted, she simply couldn't muster up the energy to continue.
The consequences of such a grueling day were unforgettable.
The next morning, Debbie Reynolds couldn't get out of bed. In fact, her heart rate was worrisomely slow. To the studio's dismay, her doctor demanded the actress rest for two days, and film production ceased until she'd fully recovered. Still, Reynolds harbored no hard feelings toward Gene Kelly and his extreme work ethic.
Down the road, Debbie Reynolds sang Gene Kelly's praises: "He made me a star. I was 18 and he taught me how to dance and how to work hard and be dedicated". And when it came to hard work, there was no slowing down.
Reynolds completely threw herself into her career, adhering to the jam-packed schedules the studio fed her. But her career wasn't the only thing they controlled.
MGM molded Reynolds into exactly the star they desired; they determined how she looked and dressed and which movies she'd star in. And though it may sound preposterous now, they also had a say in who she dated.
On one of the very first publicity dates she went on, Reynolds met a man who stole her breath away.
Debbie Reynolds wasn't necessarily looking for love when she set eyes on the dashing actor, Robert Wagner. At the time, they were still two kids trying to make their way through the wild world of the movie business, but Reynolds' crush was undeniable.
The two actors became close friends, but sadly, no lasting romance came out of their time together. When Wagner began seeing somebody else, their paths split. But for Debbie Reynolds, there was an even more disappointing romance on the horizon.
In 1955, Debbie Reynolds' love life took a sudden turn when she made Eddie Fisher on the set of Hit the Deck. It was a pairing beyond even the studio's wildest dreams.
"Debbie and Eddie" became a sensation, and the press followed every moment of their love story. Fans adored the couple. They looked absolutely perfect for one another—but nothing could have been further from the truth.
Not everything was as it seemed. In regard to her relationship with Fisher, Reynolds later confessed, "We were America's sweethearts and, on my part, that was true".
Only two weeks after meeting Fisher, Reynolds accepted the star's proposal, as well as a stunning 11-carat diamond ring. But one of her co-stars gave her the darkest warning imaginable.
While filming The Tender Trap, Debbie Reynolds' co-star Frank Sinatra gave her some chilling advice. He told her to never get involved with pop stars, including Eddie Fisher.
However, Reynolds had a mind of her own, and despite many red flags, she didn't back down. She married her beloved sweetheart—but this was no "happily ever after".
When Reynolds embarked upon her romance with Fisher, she was still new to the world of dating and terribly inexperienced. Most of the kisses she'd ever shared with a man had been for the movies.
For the naive actress, she believed that marriage was a bond that should never be broken. That said, she was in for an awfully rude awakening.
On the surface, Reynolds' marriage seemed completely ideal and idyllic, especially when she gave birth to her daughter Carrie, followed by her son Todd.
In the "happy" family's home movies, nothing seemed to be amiss, with both Reynolds and Fisher balancing their busy careers and time with their adorable babies. But this was only the calm before the storm.
Turns out, Reynolds and Fisher couldn't juggle the demands of Hollywood and family life forever, and soon, deep cracks began to show.
Although devastated by the impending doom of her relationship, Reynolds' career had never been better. Nobody really knew just how messy her personal life had become, or that her next hit single reflected her inner turmoil in the most heartbreaking way.
In 1957, Debbie Reynolds struck gold with her hit "Tammy" from Tammy and the Bachelor. But this sweet, melancholy song struck a little too close for home.
No matter how hard she tried to hold her marriage together, it was falling apart. She had no idea that her distant husband was about to deal her the most brutal betrayal.
As if things couldn't get any worse for Debbie Reynolds, her husband's head swiveled at the sight of one violet-eyed beauty—actress Elizabeth Taylor. But this infamous affair came on the heels of tragedy.
In 1958, Eddie Fisher's close friend Mike Todd passed in a horrific plane crash. Mike Todd also happened to be Elizabeth Taylor's husband. This set the scene for a terrible scandal.
Reynolds stayed at home while her husband attended Mike Todd's funeral. He also consoled Elizabeth Taylor, the heartbroken widow and one of his wife's oldest friends. But Eddie Fisher's well-intentioned visit only drove him further away from his wife and into the arms of Taylor, who quickly became his new mistress.
At first, Debbie Reynolds denied the awful rumors about her husband's treacherous infidelity. But after one unbelievable discovery, she had no choice but to accept the cold hard truth.
When Reynolds called Taylor's hotel room, pretending to be Dean Martin, she undoubtedly hoped for good news...Instead, the call only confirmed her worst fears.
It was only after she had evidence of Eddie Fisher's presence in Elizabeth Taylor's room that Debbie Reynolds finally agreed to a divorce. But the ensuing public scandal produced a chilling ripple effect.
In the blink of an eye, Eddie Fisher disappeared from Reynolds and her children's life—an abandonment that stung beyond words.
The affair shocked the world and immediately honed in on Fisher and Taylor as the villains of this twisted love triangle. Fisher was the dishonest cheater, while Taylor was branded a homewrecker. And though Reynolds battled a broken heart, she managed to escape the claws of the public's judgment.
Everyone pitied poor Debbie Reynolds, the innocent single mother—and as a result, her career continued to soar...But not everyone's did.
Karma came for Eddie Fisher, who married Taylor the day his divorce went through. However, his career would never be the same again.
In fact, his TV program got canceled in 1959 and, while Reynolds and Taylor continued to prosper, the down-and-out singer returned to performing in lowly lounges and nightclubs. However, that's not to say that Reynolds didn't suffer behind closed doors.
The divorce took a severe toll on Reynolds. She later admitted, "I was going through a terrible time: I couldn't eat, I had ulcers, I had lost a lot of weight, I was so unhappy". Despite her sadness, Reynolds hoped that this enduring loneliness wouldn't plague her forever.
Reynolds still believed in the illusive fairytale ending—and so, when she met the millionaire businessman Harry Karl, it seemed as though her prayers had finally been answered.
Harry Karl seemed like the perfect catch: He was generous and kind, but also had an infectious sense of humor. But that wasn't the best part.
Reynolds had finally found a man that completely adored her, as well as both of her children. They were both outrageously wealthy, and once they married, they became one of the richest couples in Hollywood. But all that glitters is not gold.
With Karl by her side, Reynolds was able to raise her children in absolute luxury. They lived in a sprawling mansion in a fancy neighborhood, with three swimming pools and a screening room. But Reynolds' fame also made her children's lives difficult, especially Carrie, who felt like she'd never live up to the public's expectations.
Unfortunately, this wasn't the only problem dogging this seemingly perfect family unit.
There was something that Debbie Reynolds didn't know about her loving husband: He was a gambler. However, she never suspected him until his habits became too disturbing to ignore.
Reynolds began to worry when Karl began losing up to $30,000 a day, sometimes even losing her own hard-earned money.
Whenever Reynolds asked Karl if he could afford to be so reckless with his money, he'd shrug off her worries. But this entire debacle reached a head when Reynolds arrived home one day—and made the most disturbing discovery. There were boards covering her front door. That's when she knew something was terribly wrong.
At the height of her husband's gambling addiction, Reynolds remembers sheriffs taking possession of her home. But it was so much worse than she realized.
It turns out that Harry Karl had gambled away not only his $22 million fortune but also $8 million of Debbie Reynolds' fortune. Oh, but the betrayal went even deeper than that.
Carrie Fisher couldn't believe her ears when her mother told her that they had no money: "What I was hearing was he had humiliated her, destroyed her, deceived her, betrayed her". To make matters worse, Reynolds also told Carrie that Karl was a philanderer and had invited escorts to the house.
From that day on, Reynolds' daughter hated Harry Karl with every fiber of her being.
Drowning in debt, Debbie Reynolds could have filed for bankruptcy, but instead, she did what always did—She persevered. To make back her money, the actress turned to the Broadway stage. She wasn't going to give up without a fight, so she signed a contract to play the lead in Irene.
But the road back to financial security was a long and hard one.
For the next 10 years, Debbie Reynolds sang her heart out and danced on stage, paying back every cent she owed with her earnings. At the age of 50, she stepped out from under the shadow of financial distress and left another horrifying chapter of her life behind her.
Still, this success wasn't enough for Reynolds. She was on to bigger and better things.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Debbie Reynolds continued to perform but also embarked on some risky business ventures of her own. She figured that because her ex-husband had been such a gambler, she didn't mind doing whatever she wanted.
She purchased a Casino in Las Vegas and renamed it the Debbie Reynolds Hollywood Hotel. But this would also lead to another crushing disappointment.
Despite Reynolds' history of heartbreak, she also hadn't given up on love. In the 90s, she took another stab at marriage after meeting Richard Hamlett, a real estate developer. But if Reynolds thought she'd found her Prince Charming, she was sorely mistaken...Hamlett might have been the worst husband yet.
In her 2013 memoir Unsinkable, Debbie Reynolds described her ex in a shocking way. She wrote, "I'd married the devil".
Perhaps the most disturbing anecdote described the opening of her Las Vegas hotel. Halfway through her performance, Hamlett dipped out...and then disappeared.
It was already weird that Hamlett had ditched his wife during the grand opening of their hotel, but it was about to get even weirder.
A day and a half later, he finally showed up in Reynolds' room. Undoubtedly seething, Reynolds confronted her Hamlett about his absence—and that's when the real fear kicked in.
Reynolds wrote that her husband had a "look in his eyes [that] scared me," but she became even more terrified when he insisted that they carry on their conversation on the balcony.
The distressed actress became convinced that her husband wanted to take her life. "I was sure he was going to toss me off the balcony. One shove and all his troubles would be over. I pictured myself plummeting twelve floors to the pavement".
To protect herself from her husband, Reynolds barricaded herself in her closet with her luggage until he exited the room. This was the last straw. She knew she had to get a divorce, but that required meeting Hamlett to break the awful news to him. She met him at a café—and that's where he made the most brutal confession.
Richard Hamlett confirmed Debbie Reynolds' worst fears. When she met him to discuss the divorce settlement he told her, "I'm in it for the money. I'm not leaving. You'll never get rid of me. You can't get rid of me. I control everything. It's all in my name. You're just a figurehead. You're nothing. And I don't love you".
Well, luckily for Reynolds, this threat didn't mean much, because she managed to secure a divorce from this wild man in 1996. Oh, but fate had another cruel twist in store for her.
Only a year after this nightmare marriage came to a close, so did her Las Vegas hotel. In fact, it was a total failure and she had to declare bankruptcy. Would Debbie Reynolds ever get her happy ending?
Perhaps one of the more positive parts of Debbie Reynolds' life was her reconciliation with her old friend, Elizabeth Taylor. In the 60s, they met aboard a trans-Atlantic cruise ship and were spotted dining together. Down the road, Taylor even reportedly apologized to Reynolds, saying, "I'm sorry what I did to you with Eddie".
According to Reynolds' son Todd, the actress was taken aback by how emotional Taylor still seemed to be about the whole affair.
Reynolds' daughter Carrie Fisher followed in her footsteps and became famous in her own right, perhaps best known for her role as Princess Leia in Star Wars. But Fisher had demons of her own and struggled with addiction, as well as bipolar disorder. To Reynolds' dismay, this led her beloved daughter down a very dark road.
Sadly, on December 23, 2016, Carrie Fisher stopped breathing while on a flight from London to LA. Though a passenger performed CPR on the actress until paramedics arrived on the scene, it was already too late. Four days later, Reynolds' only daughter tragically passed. But the heartbreak didn't end there.
On December 28th, only a day after Reynolds lost her daughter, she suffered a stroke and was rushed to the hospital...She didn't make it.
According to Reynolds' son, Todd Fisher, Carrie's sudden death had severely affected his mother. He believed that her overwhelming grief may have been a contributing factor to her medical emergency.
Not long before Debbie Reynolds passed, she made a terrifyingly prophetic statement: "I want to be with Carrie". After both stars met their heartbreaking ends, news reports blew up with claims that Reynolds had died of a broken heart. But Todd Fisher had another theory.
In an interview on 20/20, Reynolds' son believed that she "didn't die of a broken heart". He believed she "just left to be with Carrie".
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