Heartbreaking Facts About Debbie Reynolds, Tragic Girl-Next-Door

From the moment that Debbie Reynolds first stepped on screen, one thing was clear: America had a new sweetheart. With her girl-next-door looks, charm, and talent, she quickly became a Hollywood sensation. After all, her first leading role was in the iconic Singin’ in the Rain! Yet behind closed doors, Reynolds’ life was tainted with scandal, heartbreak, and struggle—but she handled everything with grace and dignity, up until her final, tragic hours on Earth. Here are 50 little-known facts about Debbie Reynolds, Hollywood’s tragic girl-next-door.

1. No April Fool

Debbie Reynolds was born Mary Frances Reynolds. Anyone prone to superstition would look at her birthdate warily. Not only was she born in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, she was born on April 1—April Fool’s Day.

2. Struggle Breeds Strength

Debbie Reynolds was born toward the end of the Great Depression, and her family was quite poor. Her father was a carpenter and her mother worked in a laundry, but this hard-living didn’t faze the young girl. Reynolds has said that her parents were always happy and devoted to her and that there was always food on the table.

3. I Got It From My Mama

Debbie Reynolds was the matriarch of a Hollywood dynasty full of strong women. Her daughter was Carrie Fisher, and her granddaughter Billie Lourd is also a successful actress. All three generations of women were incredibly close.

4. The Tomboy Next Door

When Debbie Reynolds was seven years old, her family moved from El Paso, Texas to Burbank, California. Still, it took more than the sparkle and lights of Hollywood to impress little Debbie. At the time, she was something of a tomboy. She didn’t care about clothes or fancy things and stayed pretty close to her family despite the glamorous environs.

5. No Such Thing as a Free Lunch—Really

Despite her image as a tomboy, once Reynolds hit her teen years, it was clear that she was a great beauty. When she was 16 years old, she won the Miss Burbank beauty contest thanks to her impression of movie star Betty Hutton. She had actually only entered the competition because contestants received a silk scarf, blouse, and a free lunch.

6. Heads She Wins, Tails She Wins

At the 1948 Miss Burbank contest, talent scouts from both Warner Bros. and MGM were in attendance. After Reynolds won, they both wanted to sign her—but they resolved the 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.

7. A Rose by Any Other Name…

At the point she won the Miss Burbank title, she was still going by Mary Frances Reynolds. Studio head Jack L. Warner actually gave her the nickname “Debbie.”

8. Breaking out

Reynolds’ very first film part was a non-speaking role in the film June’s Bride, but this was just to get her feet wet. You see, Warner Bros. wasn’t about to waste the talent they’d won in that legendary coin toss. Her next role, in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, was written specifically for her—but the special treatment ended there.

9. The Better to Hear You With

Every day on the set of The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady, the makeup department would glue back Reynolds’ ears, since the studio thought they were too big.  Then, as if that wasn’t humiliating enough, the glue would dissolve under the hot lights on set and they’d pop back out. After weeks of this, Reynolds’ mother went to disturbing lengths to fix the problem. She arranged to have her daughter’s ears surgically pinned back.

10. Star Swap

The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady was supposed to be Reynolds’ big breakout role, but she soon received heartbreaking news: Warner Bros. would no longer be producing musicals. However, there was a silver lining—MGM was ready and waiting for her.

11. Overnight Success

Her first role with MGM was in the Fred Astaire vehicle Three Little Words. It would net her the Golden Globe Award for Most Promising Newcomer in 1951, but that wasn’t the only way that her time with Astaire would change her life…

12. Fleet-Footed or Fail-Footed?

Based on the success of Three Little Words, MGM had the idea to make Reynolds the star of their next big music and dance feature Singin’ in the Rain. There was just one problem: Reynolds couldn’t dance. The studio gave her a short time to learn, but every day, she grew more and more frustrated, until she reached an agonizing breaking point.

13. Practice Makes Perfect

One day, her Singin’ in the Rain co-star Gene Kelly insulted Reynolds’ dancing skills. Reynolds grew so discouraged by his criticism that she lay down beneath a piano to cry—until she heard a voice from above asking her what was wrong. It was Fred Astaire. Seeing how distressed she was, he offered to help her learn to dance.

14. Happy Again

The final product of Reynolds’ hard work and arduous training was the iconic film Singin’ in the Rain. Her co-star Gene Kelly also directed and choreographed the film, and his perfectionism was taxing to everyone on set. Later, Reynolds would remark that the two hardest things that she’d ever done in life were childbirth and making Singin’ in the Rain.

15. Damsel in Distress

The filming of one dance scene in Singin’ in the Rain was so intense that crew members had to carry Reynolds to her dressing room afterward, as she’d burst a number of blood vessels in her feet.

16. Legends Aren’t Made Overnight

When Singin’ in the Rain came out, it was actually only a modest success with audiences and critics. As the years wore on, however, critics soon regarded it as one of the best musicals of all time. It’s #1 on the American Film Institute’s list of Greatest Movie Musicals, and it made it into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 1989.

17. Buyer Beware

Around the time she made Singin’ in the Rain, Debbie Reynolds met and fell in love with a young singer and actor named Eddie Fisher. Both stars were young, beautiful, and wildly popular. To everyone on the outside, it seemed like a match made in heaven—until someone gave Reynolds a dire warning about her paramour.

18. A Tender Tip

When Reynolds starred opposite Frank Sinatra in The Tender Trap in 1955, the crooner told her not to marry Fisher. Sinatra said that with Fisher’s good looks and popularity, he’d be likely to stray—but Reynolds wasn’t about to let anyone stand in her way. The love birds ended up marrying that year, critics be darned.

19. First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then Comes…

Reynolds and Fisher had two children together: daughter Carrie was born in 1956, and son Todd in 1958. At first, things couldn’t be happier, and many people in Hollywood and beyond saw them as the perfect American couple. Sadly, these people were all wrong—their union was doomed to an utterly heartbreaking end.

20. With Friends Like These

Many readers know where this one’s going. When Reynolds and Fisher were together, they were close friends with Elizabeth Taylor and her husband Mike Todd. When Todd perished in a plane crash in 1958, Taylor was utterly grief-stricken, and Fisher was all too happy to lend her a shoulder to cry on. Soon enough, the pair began an affair that would leave Reynolds devastated. The tabloids, predictably, went wild.

21. Done Dirty

The affair had dire consequences. Not only did the couple divorce in 1959, but Eddie Fisher’s long-running variety show was canceled because of his ruined image. For her part, the public labeled Elizabeth Taylor as a “homewrecker.” The illicit pair would go on to marry in 1959, but Taylor later said that she only married Fisher because of her overwhelming grief.

22. Case of the Ex

Just a year after her divorce from Fisher, Reynolds went on to marry a man named Harry Karl, a wealthy shoe manufacturer who was previously married to another scandal-plagued actress, Marie McDonald. However, whereas Reynolds was a good girl caught up in a bad situation, McDonald was more of a bona fide troublemaker.

23. Gone Girl

During their relationship, Karl and McDonald had quite the scandalous and rocky ride. Between 1954 and 1958, Karl and McDonald separated, divorced, and reconciled a number of times—but that was nothing compared to what happened to McDonald in 1957. One night, men allegedly kidnapped McDonald and held her for ransom.

While her mother and Karl heard from one of her “kidnappers,” McDonald herself called her agent, a man she was dating at the time, as well as a columnist. A day later, a truck driver found her wandering by the side of the road, mostly unharmed.

24. The Plot Thickens

When the authorities interviewed her, McDonald changed her story a number of times, and they began to doubt she was telling the truth. Karl, for his part, also suspected that she’d made the whole thing up. No one ever filed charges, and Karl and McDonald divorced for good in April 1958—right around the time that Fisher was “comforting” Elizabeth Taylor behind Reynolds’ back.

25. The Two Extremes

McDonald went on to die of an accidental overdose on October 21, 1965. Coincidentally, that happened to be the same day as Reynolds’ daughter Carrie’s ninth birthday—but that didn’t stop Reynolds from springing into action. When she heard of McDonald’s death, Reynolds immediately drove over and picked up Tina, Karl and McDonald’s biological daughter.

As Tina later said, Reynolds told her to “call me Mom,” and the pair went straight from the scene to Carrie Fisher’s birthday party.

26. Lifelong Stepmom

Reynolds never questioned that she’d take care of Karl’s three children after they lost their mother. In fact, even after things went south for the couple—more on that later—Reynolds went on to financially support all three of McDonald and Karl’s children until the day she passed on. Debbie Reynolds: They sure don’t make them like they used to.

27. Two Roads Diverged

Whereas Eddie Fisher lost his TV show in the aftermath of his divorce, Reynolds’ career really took off in the 1960s. In 1964, she appeared as the titular character in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, for which she got her first Oscar nomination, for Best Actress. Reynolds would later say that it was her favorite of all the films she’d appeared in.

28. No Small Parts, Only Small Actors

Although she gained acclaim for her part in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, director Charles Walters initially hated her for the role and wanted Shirley MacLaine instead. Reynolds, however, was determined to get the part. When she asked Walters why he didn’t want her, he told her that she was too short. Her reply was absolutely perfect. 

She replied, “Well, just how short is the part?” Her pluck won her the role.

29. Singin’ a Different Song

Reynolds’ final film for MGM was The Singing Nun, loosely based on the real life story of Jeanine Deckers, the nun who recorded the hit song “Dominique.” Reynolds played Sister Ann, based on Deckers. While the poster proclaimed “Happiness is Debbie Reynolds as ‘the Singing Nun,’” the true story of Deckers’ life had a dark and disturbing ending.

The film ends with Reynolds going to do missionary work in Africa, but in real life, Deckers was plagued by financial problems following the success of her song, and died by suicide alongside her partner Annie Pecher in 1985.

30. I Love Debbie

In 1969, Debbie Reynolds got a deal she simply couldn’t refuse: her own regular show on NBC. The Debbie Reynolds Show featured Reynolds playing the role of housewife and aspiring reporter Debbie Thompson. It was an I Love Lucy-esque sitcom, with Reynolds’ character constantly getting into some hilarious hijinks.

31. Troop Beverly Hills

Having a steady schedule worked out great for Reynolds, as at that point she was a mother to a brood of two biological children and three stepchildren. Always devoted, she would actually take Friday afternoons off to bring her daughter Carrie and stepdaughter Tina to Girl Scout meetings—she was even their troop leader!

32. Not on My Watch

Sadly, Reynolds’ dream job would quickly turn into a nightmareThe Debbie Reynolds Show established her as TV’s highest-paid female performer, but she noticed something that she just couldn’t shake: ads for cigarettes playing during the breaks. She insisted that NBC cease playing them during her show. It turned into a battle of wills—and dollars.

33. You Can’t Fire Me, I Quit

When Reynolds threatened to quit the show, American Brands, the company behind the ads, retaliated by withdrawing sponsorship. Suddenly, NBC had an expensive TV show without the revenue they’d expected from those ads. Reynolds ended up leaving the show after a year, claiming it was a move to preserve her integrity—but it wound up costing her dearly.

34. Expensive Principles

Reynolds’ deal with NBC hadn’t just been for one season of the sitcom—her contract also guaranteed a second season as well as a film, and ownership of another potential series. All told, She ended up losing about $2 million by quitting the show when she did. That’s a lot of money to stick to your values, but Reynolds didn’t back down.

35. Rich Dad, Poor Dad

The financial loss couldn’t have come at a worse time. Reynolds’ husband Harry Karl had made millions as a businessman, so after their 1960 marriage, Reynolds put him in charge of her finances—it wound up being a dire mistake. In the 2016 documentary Bright Lights, Reynolds revealed the reason behind her 1973 divorce from Karl: His gambling problem took over, and he lost many of their investments. By the time she left him, she was broke.

36. The Aftermath

Their divorce had a devastating effect on Reynolds’ stepchildren, who had already lost their mother. Tina Karl said that one day, out of the blue, Reynolds simply packed up her children Carrie and Todd and disappeared. She tearfully said goodbye to Tina and told her that they had to go to New York. Alone and grieving, Tina was doubly devastated.

37. Moot Point

Sadly, despite Reynolds’ principled move to leave NBC on account of the ad content on her show, the problem would’ve resolved itself soon after: in 1971, the government banned advertising tobacco products on TV and radio.

38. One Day We’ll Look Back and Laugh

In 1964, Debbie Reynolds found herself on the same ocean liner as her former friend and romantic rival, Elizabeth Taylor. Eddie Fisher was no longer part of either of their lives, and after Taylor apologized to Reynolds and expressed her utter regret at the way she’d treated her as a friend, they found that they were able to put their differences behind them and have a laugh…at Fisher’s expense, of course.

39. No Shower Hot Enough

For his part, Fisher wrote an autobiography that detailed the nitty-gritty of his love life in 1999. After it came out, Carrie Fisher, his daughter with Reynolds, declared “That’s it. I’m having my DNA fumigated.”

40. The Unsinkable Mommy Adler

Reynolds continued to appear periodically on film and TV throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but few of her late-career parts were as memorable as her time playing Bobbi Adler, Grace Adler’s mother on Will & Grace. She was even nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series in 2000. Atta girl, Debbie.

41. Three Strikes, She’s out

Reynolds’ third and final marriage was to real estate developer Richard Hamlett in 1984. They eventually divorced in 1996, and Reynolds never remarried.

42. Legends Playing Legends

In the late 80s, Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher published the semi-autobiographical novel Postcards From the Edge, which focused on her substance issues and her relationship with her mother. It was later made into a film, with Meryl Streep in the role of Fisher and Shirley MacLaine in the role of Reynolds.

43. Very, Very Thinly Veiled

Another one of Carrie Fisher’s heavily autobiographical projects was a made-for-TV film titled These Old Broads. It starred Reynolds, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, and Shirley MacLaine. In the film, Taylor and Reynolds’ characters joke about a mutual ex named “Freddie Hunter”—they even make fun of his performance in the bedroom. You can guess for yourself who that character is supposed to be.

44. Save the Drive

For most of the 70s, Reynolds spent three months out of every year performing in Las Vegas—two shows a night, seven nights a week. She became a Vegas legend, and eventually, the city named a small street after her: Debbie Reynolds Drive. In 2019, a real estate developer revealed that he hoped to change the name. A grassroots movement sprung up to save it, but its fate is still up in the air.

45. Mayday

In late 2016, Reynolds experienced every mother’s nightmare: She got word that her daughter Carrie Fisher had suffered a medical emergency while on board a flight from London to Los Angeles. Medics rushed Fisher to the hospital upon landing, put her on a ventilator, and hoped she would make a recovery against all odds.

46. A Heartbreaking Loss

After four days in intensive care at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, Carrie Fisher died of cardiac arrest brought on by sleep apnea and atherosclerosis, leaving Reynolds and the rest of their family utterly heartbroken. Fisher was only 60, and her own mother had lived to see her dying day. Sadly, the tragedy was far from over. 

47. A Terrible Two Days

The very next day, Reynolds was in the middle of making the arrangements for Fisher’s memorial when she suffered a stroke. Again, doctors rushed her to the hospital, but it seems that Reynolds just wasn’t meant to live in this world without her beloved daughter. The legendary actress passed on on December 28, 2016, at the age of 84.

48. You’ll Never Walk Alone

Soon after Reynolds’ tragic end, her son Todd Fisher made a statement and revealed some of his mother’s final, heartbreaking words: “I want to be with Carrie.” Todd was adamant that she didn’t die of a broken heart, but rather she just wanted to be there to comfort her daughter. Reynolds is survived by Todd Fisher and her granddaughter, actress Billie Lourd.

49. Do It Live

One of Reynolds’ final screen appearances was in the documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It was a documentary about the pair’s close relationship and all that they’d been through together. It was originally supposed to air in March 2017, but after the consecutive deaths of Fisher and Reynolds, the network rushed it to broadcast on January 7, 2017.

50. Laughing From the Other Side

Debbie Reynolds is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Hollywood Hills, and a portion of her daughter Carrie’s ashes are with her. The rest of Fisher’s ashes were put into a large novelty Prozac pill, poking fun at Fisher’s battles with mental illness.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25

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