Grace and modesty characterized Astaire

``I thought I looked like a knife on the screen,'' said Fred Astaire when recalling his first movie appearance. And he always did, a little. Astaire, who died Monday in Los Angeles, wasn't awesome for his looks. Or his voice or his haircut or even his impeccable clothes.

What made him one of Hollywood's most beloved stars was sheer talent - that indescribable, unmistakable gift - combined with a legendary perfectionism. He had what it took. And he worked at his art with unflagging dedication.

Like many of Hollywood's first-rank stars, Astaire made his movie persona seem so natural that audiences took it at face value - forgetting that he molded his image with the same care he lavished on individual dance numbers.

He wasn't born on Broadway, after all, with agile feet flying beneath an elegant outfit of white tie and tails. He pieced together his public personality as he built the foundation of his career, sharing with audiences his growing appreciation of aristocratic trappings. The upper crust was his natural habitat, he happily discovered. Once ensconced there, he wielded his social flair with a grace and even a modesty - the suits and shoes may have cost a mint, but there was never a hint of flash or glitz - that earned the love of fickle Hollywood-watchers for decades.

Astaire's talent and perfectionism both had their roots in Omaha, Neb., where he was born. His sister, Adele, was thought to be the prodigy of the family, with the younger Fred considered ``the convenient partner,'' as dance historian Tony Scott puts it in his book ``That's Dancing!''

Perhaps to compensate for this, Fred acquired the habit of working on steps, routines, and ideas until they shone as perfectly as possible. The young dancers traveled the vaudeville circuit, and made their Broadway debuts in ``Over the Top,'' instantly establishing themselves as top-flight attractions. Fred became a close friend of George Gershwin and other top composers, drawing on his own love - and talent - for piano playing, drumming, and songwriting.

Adele eventually left the entertainment world, but Fred found a new and ideal partner in Ginger Rogers, who danced with him through most of the 1930s. Their first number hit the screen in ``Flying Down to Rio,'' released in 1933. It was just a carioca, but it impressed the studio so much that Astaire and Rogers - billed fourth and fifth, way below the movie's nominal stars - had the last romantic shot in the picture. Astaire reportedly worried that Rogers was too earthy to rejoin him in ``The Gay Divorcee'' the next year. Good sense prevailed, and the partnership endured.

Astaire thought of retiring (at age 40!), when he and Ginger called an end to their teamwork. But mogul Louis B. Mayer convinced him to stay in Hollywood, and the '40s proved another fine decade in his career. Ditto for the '50s, marked by ``The Band Wagon'' and other fondly remembered outings. In 1959, he turned to drama in Stanley Kramer's nuclear-war film ``On the Beach'' and a new facet of his talent drew praise.

TV shows and anthology films like ``That's Entertainment'' were Astaire's main screen activities in later years. But audiences never forgot his supreme gift for the art of movement. When he came to Hollywood more than 50 years ago, Broadway's loss was everyone's gain, since his most mature work is captured on film for all times to come.

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