Fred Astaires fragile ego massaged by team as vanity with Cyd Charisse exposed: ‘Problem’

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers face the music and dance

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Fred Astaire’s magical moves are on display this afternoon in ‘The Band Wagon’ on BBC Two. The classic musical sees the legendary dancer play fading Hollywood star Tony Hunter, who has not appeared in a film for three years. Astaire is in sparkling form in the film as his character is encouraged by his friends to go back into the industry. Astaire, the greatest dancer in film history, partners up with Cyd Charisse for the number ‘Dancing in the Dark’.

In the film, Tony is concerned about his height and performing with Charisse’s character Gabrielle Gerard, a worry that Astaire harboured about himself in real life.

Charisse, who was renowned for her long legs, had a few inches on Astaire, who stood at 5ft 9 or 175.3 cm tall.

The “discrepancy” between the pair became a “problem”, according to Howard Dietz, who co-wrote the musical’s score with Arthur Schwartz.

The dancer’s bruised ego was massaged by producers, who modified his shoes, Dietz was quoted as saying in the Daily Mail in 2008.

He said: “Cyd was several inches taller than Fred.

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“Her long legs made her look streamlined like the Chrysler Building – Fred was more General Motors.

“The discrepancy was a problem, but the producers wanted Cyd and built up Fred’s ego – and his heels.”

Charisse had also caught the eye of Astaire as watched a screening of ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ with his friend and collaborator Gene Kelly.

Astaire asked his fellow dancer: “Did you catch that girl Charisse?”

But aware of Astaire’s short stature, Kelly told his friend: “She’s too tall for you.”

Astaire’s concerns over his height were also laid bare by Tighe E Zimmers in his 2021 book, ‘That’s Entertainment: A Biography of Broadway Composer Arthur Schwartz’.

The writer quotes choreographer Michael Kidd, who explained how Tony’s reluctance to dance with Gabrielle in ‘The Band Wagon’ mirrored Fred’s own concerns in real life.

He said: “In real life, Fred was concerned that Cyd was too tall for him, which bothered him a great deal.

“After we discovered that, and he mentioned it a few times, a scene was put in the movie where Cyd is standing on a lower rung of a staircase and Fred looks at her and steps up one rung, to see at what height he would match her height.

“He was also really uneasy about dancing with Cyd Charisse for the true-life reasons that are incorporated in the story.

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“She was, primarily, a beautiful ballet dancer, and… he was a hoofer, though a superb one and a graceful one.”

Astaire’s biographer, Michael Freedland, also weighed in on Astaire’s height compared to Charisse.

He said: “It was while she was working on another M-G-M film that Astaire appeared on the set, without warning and proceeded to walk round and round like a fox sizing up a prey.

“When Arthur Freed offered her the co-starring part in ‘The Band Wagon’, she realised what the circling had all been about.

“Astaire had simply been trying to work out how tall she was.”

‘The Band Wagon’ airs on BBC Two from 12:10pm this afternoon.

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