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Debbie Reynolds, this is your life!

by Adam Sandel

Debbie Reynolds, star of stage and screen.
Debbie Reynolds, star of stage and screen.  

She may be best known to recent generations as the mother of everyone from Grace Adler in Will & Grace to Kevin Kline in In & Out, and as the real-life mother of Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher. But Debbie Reynolds' 60-year career as a film, television, Broadway, Las Vegas and recording star shows no sign of slowing down.

The 75-year-old singer/dancer/comedian is excited about bringing her one-woman show to San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on Friday night. "I've been doing live shows since the 1960s. I like using the old word vaudeville," she says. "I love doing live work because it's more exciting."

On New Year's Eve, Reynolds will open the new South Shore Hotel in Summerland, Nevada, then head to Australia to star in the stage musical Irene. She earned a Tony nomination in the title role of the 1972 Broadway production, but this time she's playing (you guessed it) the mother. "I'm playing my own mother," she quips.

She made her first big Hollywood splash at age 17 in the 1952 classic Singin' in the Rain, and went on to star in dozens of films over the next few decades. Which three films is she most proud of? "The Unsinkable Molly Brown [which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination], Singin' in the Rain and How the West Was Won," she says. "Goodbye Charlie with Tony Curtis was great fun, and I still love 'Tammy' because it was so sweet," she adds.

But does one specific memory stand out from each of her most memorable films?

Singin' in the Rain: "Surviving all the dance numbers! I'd never danced before in my life, so studying and trying to keep up with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor was very tough. Mr. Kelly worked us 14 hours a day. My favorite line was Jean Hagen [as the braying silent film star] saying, 'I kee-ant stee-and him!'"

How the West Was Won (the 1962 all-star Western epic): "I loved working with Robert Preston. I had to use a bullwhip and accidentally hit him across the face. It was terrifying. They had to break the ice for us to go into the river [when the pioneer family crosses a river of raging rapids], and it was freezing. We wore rubber pants, but it didn't help — I was blue. Two stuntmen drowned making that scene."

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964): "I tried hard to get that part. They wanted Shirley MacLaine, but she was in a lawsuit with producer Hal Wallis, and he wouldn't give her up. We filmed the song 'He's My Friend,' a big Irish jig, in one take with two cameras, then we all passed out."

Mother (1996): "Working with Albert Brooks was wonderful. He used one camera, on the cameraman's back, and it could be a five-minute scene, but he wouldn't do any cuts. I loved playing that role."

In & Out (1997): "We all had a lot of fun. Kevin Kline is a sheer genius. I can rehearse and do a scene maybe four different ways. He can do a take 40 different ways, all of them brilliantly."

Debbie's rivals

There have been roles that Reynolds wanted, but didn't get. "I wanted to do The Turning Point, and I love all the parts Shirley MacLaine gets." One of them was the movie-star mother in Postcards from the Edge, based on daughter Carrie Fisher's semi-autobiographical novel. "I wanted to play the part, but everyone thought it was me because Carrie wrote it."

You mean it wasn't? "Well, I can be bossy and a bit outrageous at parties. I'm a performer — when I open the refrigerator and the light goes on, I start to sing. But [unlike the character], I don't have to be drunk to do it. I'm not an alcoholic. I can party when I want to."

Reynolds was at the center of one of the biggest tabloid scandals of the 1950s when Elizabeth Taylor stole husband Eddie Fisher from her in 1959. "Liz and I had been friends since we were teenagers at MGM, but unfortunately she picked Eddie — when he was married to me. It was a mistake for her, and a mistake for me. We made up many years ago, before Burton's death, and we're very good friends. We talk on the phone about work, kids, and complain about old age."

What advice does she have for today's tabloid stars? "Liz, Eddie and I were like Angelina, Brad and Jennifer today. I had 100 reporters in my front yard for months. I'd tell them not to be reclusive, just be honest with the press and they'll leave you alone. I'd tell them, 'This, too, shall pass.'"

Debbie Reynolds' rivalries have indeed passed. She starred with Liz Taylor and Shirley MacLaine (along with Joan Collins) in the 2001 TV movie These Old Broads, written by her daughter Carrie.

When asked if she has a favorite vice, she quickly responds: "Work. I love to dance, sing and perform, and I'm going to work til I drop dead. I'll be like Trigger, I'll be stuffed and mounted in a museum, and you'll put a quarter in me, and I'll sing 'Tammy.'"

Debbie Reynolds at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., Fri., Dec. 7 at 8 p.m. Tickets ($47.50-$77.50):

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