Some readers were offended that I noted in a comment here that Debbie Reynolds characteristically upstaged her daughter by dying a day after Carrie Fisher, again stealing the spotlight from her daughter. Sorry about that—but it’s true. For most of her life, Reynolds was less than comfortable when she didn’t feel an audience watching her, as Fisher herself complained in her semi-autobiographical novel, “Postcards from the Edge.” Debbie Reynolds shared the life-defining neurosis of many performers: she was happiest when she was being herself for the world to see. Debbie, in fact, was an extreme version of this model. Most such performers are miserable, and recognizably so, when they aren’t performing. Reynolds appeared not to acknowledge that there was a world off-screen.
In “The Unsinkable Debbie Reynolds,” an excellent appreciation of her career today in the New York Times (another good one is this, in “Variety,”and the Times obituary is here.), Anita Gates confirms my assessment. It was hardly a difficult one, for Reynolds radiated her love of performing in everything she did. Here are some excerpts (do read the whole essay), as Gates begins by doubting that we will ever see a show business figure like Debbie Reynolds again in our increasingly cynical culture:
“Who’ll be as plucky? Who’ll work as hard to stay as morally pure? Who the hell is gonna be named Debbie? …We’ve all been happy to be at the movies. She always seemed happy to be in the movies. She never ceased to be thrilled to be herself. Ms. Reynolds, who died Wednesday, didn’t so much act as sell — she sold happiness, she sold pragmatic romance, she sold professional stardom…Ms. Reynolds was, as they say, a trouper. So she did what came naturally to her: She trouped… Ms. Reynolds embraced virtue. She was the least ostensibly neurotic of her peers — a class that included Shirley MacLaine and Doris Day. The movie titles got a lot of that anti-anxious decency across. She played “The Singing Nun,” for heaven’s sake. But she also starred in the 1964 musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a title whose adjective best explains the full Debbie Reynolds experience: maximum buoyancy…”
When a time came to take a public stand on principle, however, Debbie Reynolds proved that she had her priorities straight.
By the end of the 1960s, Reynolds’ career and popularity were in a nosedive. Screen musicals were a dying genre, and the romantic comedies that had sustained the careers of actresses like Doris Day and Reynolds seemed stale and vaguely obnoxious while young Americans were either dying in Vietnam or protesting the deaths on college campuses. Debbie was nearing forty, still with the spunk of an ingenue but increasingly improbable in the role. Like Day and so many fading Hollywood stars through the years, she turned to television, starring in he own show in the Fall of 1969. She should have been a natural.
“The Debbie Reynolds Show” was a half-hour sitcom in which Debbie played the ambitious and irrepressible wife of a sportswriter, always trying to horn in on his profession like Lucy Riccardo tried to force herself into Ricky’s showbiz career. “I Love Lucy’ was long gone, but Lucy herself was still racking up ratings with one of her subsequent, lesser series. Debbie Reynolds was a bigger screen star than Lucille Ball ever was—Lucy would have killed for Debbie’s career to that point. Still, Reynolds was a bit high-wattage for the small screen, at least to start.
The show had “I Love Lucy’s” artistic team behind it, though. The creator/producer was Jess Oppenheimer, just like the iconic show that made Lucy a TV legend. The writers were the same too: Bob Carroll, Jr., and Madelyn Davis. Debbie negotiated a two-year deal with CBS, giving the TV audience time to accept her as the new high energy queen of TV slapstick (Lucile Ball was almost sixty, looking and sounding every inch of it), and most important, giving Debbie time to learn the craft of TV comedy.
This time, however, an issue more important than wearing funny disguises and having outrageous schemes blow up in her face imposed on the star. The cultural opposition to cigarette smoking was on the rise, and when she signed her contract with the network, Debbie Reynolds hadn’t made any demands about her show’s sponsors. “The Debbie Reynolds Show” was in part sponsored by tobacco companies and their cigarette ads. Debbie, who was raised a Nazarene Baptist and neither smoked nor drank alcohol, objected to the ads on both moral and health grounds. She didn’t want her name used to sell cigarettes, and demanded that CBS find less deadly sponsors.
Her show wasn’t a hit yet, however, so Reynolds’ leverage was weak. CBS told her that she had a contract, and that was that. Reynold broke it, and quit the show after a single season and 26 episodes. By doing so, she forfeited her 50 percent interest in the sitcom, as well as the income from residuals that might have been substantial if “The Debbie Reynolds Show” had lasted a few more seasons.
With the controversy, largely forgotten now, Reynolds used her spotlight to focus public attention on TV cigarette advertising, which was banned the next year. It wasn’t until decades later, when she delighted in a recurring role on the NBC sitcom “Will & Grace” as Bobbi Adler, Debra Messing’s flamboyant mother who liked to burst into show tunes at the slightest provocation, that Reynolds was able to prove that she could indeed have made television her new domain.
But for all her show business obsessions, Debbie Reynolds knew when real life mattered more. Her spunk was no act, and neither was her dedication to ethical values.