Like Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe before her, Esther Williams achieved the seemingly impossible by transforming her skill at competitive swimming into a popular movie career. A star athlete an...
Los Angeles, CA
|The Duchess of Idaho||Actor||Christine Riverton Duncan||1|
|Neptune's Daughter||Actor||Eve Barrett||1|
|On an Island with You||Actor||Rosalind Reynolds||1|
|Pagan Love Song||Actor||Mimi Bennett||1|
|Skirts Ahoy!||Actor||Whitney Young||1|
|Raw Wind in Eden||Actor||Laura||1|
|This Time for Keeps||Actor||Nora Cambaretta||1|
|The Unguarded Moment||Actor||Lois Conway||1|
|Bathing Beauty||Actor||Caroline Brooks||1|
|Take Me Out to the Ball Game||Actor||K.C. Higgins||1|
|Thrill of a Romance||Actor||Cynthia Glenn||1|
|Easy to Wed||Actor||Connie Allenbury||1|
|The Hoodlum Saint||Actor||May Lorrison||1|
|A Guy Named Joe||Actor||Ellen Bright||1|
|Andy Hardy's Double Life||Actor||Sheila Brooks||1|
|Busby Berkeley: Going Through The Roof||Actor||n/a||1|
|The Magic Fountain||Actor||n/a||1|
|Million Dollar Mermaid||Actor||Annette Kellerman||1|
|Easy to Love||Actor||Julie Hallerton||1|
|Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof (1996-1997)||Actor||Interviewee||1996||1|
|The Big Show||Actor||Hillary Allen||1|
|Dangerous When Wet||Actor||Katy||1|
|Stars and Stripes: Hollywood and World War II (1990-1991)||Actor||n/a||1990||1|
|The Thalians (1989-1990)||Actor||n/a||1989||1|
|Burt Reynolds' Conversations With... (08/29/91) (1989-1990)||Actor||n/a||1989||1|
|The Lux Video Theater (1949-1959)||Actor||Performer||1949||1|
|Glorious Technicolor (1997-1998)||Actor||Interviewee||1997||1|
|That's Entertainment! III||Actor||Host||1|
|That's Entertainment! III||Actor||Song Performer||1|
|The 48th Annual Golden Globe Awards (1989-1990)||Actor||Presenter||1989||1|
|The Golden Globe's 50th Anniversary Celebration (1992-1993)||Actor||n/a||1992||1|
|MGM: When the Lion Roars (1990-1991)||Actor||n/a||1990||1|
|Happy Birthday, Hollywood! (1985-1986)||Actor||n/a||1985||1|
|First came to attention in her first swimming film, "Bathing Beauty"|
|Was one of the hosts of the musical compilation documentary "That's Entertainment III"|
|Ended MGM contract (date approximate)|
|Left college and worked as stock clerk and part-time model at I Magin store|
|Made TV debut in "Lux Video Theatre's The Armed Venus"|
|Last major aqua-musical, "Jupiter's Darling"|
|Impressario Billy Rose co-starred her with Johnny Weissmuller in his San Francisco Aquacade; quit to marry first husband|
|Twice made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten boxoffice stars; placed eighth both years|
|Won several local swimming championships; after earning the Pacific Coast Championship was signed for the 1940 Olympics (which were ultimately cancelled when WWII began)|
|Signed MGM contract|
|Last film for three years, "Raw Wind in Eden"|
|Made one-shot return to films to play a leading role in "The Big Show"|
|Retired from the industry in the early 1960s|
|Film acting debut in "Andy Hardy's Double Life"|
Born Esther Jane Williams in Inglewood, CA on Aug. 8, 1921, she took to the water at a very early age, earning her first paycheck at the age of eight as a towel girl at a local swimming pool. Her older brother Stanton Williams was the first member of the family to become a star by appearing in a handful of silent films and stage productions before his untimely death at age 16. His sister took the athletic route and gained fame as a teenage swimming champion; by 16, she had earned three national championship titles in freestyle and breaststroke. Eventually, she made the 1940 Olympic swimming team, but her dreams of a medal were dashed by the outbreak of World War II.
Undaunted, she took up part-time work as a model while studying at Los Angeles City College. Theater impresario Billy Rose saw one of her print layouts and immediately contacted her to audition for his Aquacade, an all-singing, all-dancing, all-swimming production at the San Francisco World's Fair. Former Olympic swimming medalist-turned-movie Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller, was the star of the show, and according to showbiz legend, he personally selected her to be his Aquabelle No.1.
Williams' looks and flawless skill with the show's choreographed swimming duets captured the attention of audiences, as well as executives at MGM, who saw a box office bonanza in her abilities. She was quickly signed up for a screen test opposite none other than Clark Gable, the then-reigning King of the Movies. Both the star and the studio liked what they saw, and Williams was signed to a contract. Her movie debut came with a small role in 1942's "Andy Hardy's Double Life," with star Mickey Rooney giving Williams her first screen kiss.
Audience response to Williams was overwhelming. She was already a star by her third picture, a Red Skelton comedy originally titled "Mr. Coed" that was transformed into a starring vehicle for Williams and re-dubbed "Bathing Beauty" (1944). A special tank was built at Stage 30 on the MGM lot to accommodate choreographer Busby Berkeley's elaborate water routines. The film's climax, which sees Williams crowned as queen amidst an orgy of smoke, flames, synchronized swimmers and gushing fountains, became one of the most iconic numbers in Hollywood history. The film itself became the third highest-grossing title in MGM's history to that date.
The film's success led to a 10-year string of aquatic-themed musicals for Williams, each more lavish than its predecessor. There were occasional forays out of the MGM pool, such as 1946's "The Hoodlum Saint," which paired the 24-year-old actress with the 54-year-old William Powell as her love interest, and Berkeley's terrific "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" (1949), in which baseball players Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly vied for the hand of new owner Williams. But for the most part, audiences preferred seeing Williams in the water in features like "Million Dollar Mermaid" (1953), a biopic about real-life swimming star Annette Kellerman, or "Jupiter's Darling" (1955), which found her in the improbable role of a Roman woman who helps Hannibal (Howard Keel) swim the Tiber River. The aquatic features were challenging and even dangerous - prolonged exposure to the studio tank led to repeated eardrum ruptures, near-drownings and a broken neck during a diving sequence for "Mermaid" - but Williams was "America's Mermaid," as the press dubbed her, so she had little choice in the matter.
But she was also shrewd enough to realize that her particular brand of musical was limited - there were just so many films that could be built around her swimming routines. She departed MGM as audience demand for their musical product began to dry up, and moved to Universal for her first drama, "The Unguarded Moment" (1956). A lurid melodrama about a high school teacher (Williams) who becomes the object of obsession for a deranged student (John Saxon), the film raised eyebrows with its sexually suggestive subject matter but failed to translate into a lasting dramatic career for Williams. She appeared in several more forgettable features before retiring at the insistence of her third husband, actor Fernando Lamas, in the early 1960s.
In the late latter part of that decade, Williams was approached by swimming pool manufacturers, the Delair Group, to license her name to their above-ground models. The decision was a savvy one, and the line became one of the most popular for suburbanites across the United States. Further licensing agreements led to her own line of swimwear for older women, based on the suits she wore in her movies, and a modern line for younger women. All three business decisions proved to be lucrative and popular for the former actress.
In 1999, Williams penned her autobiography, Million Dollar Mermaid, with co-author Digby Diehl. The tome generated a great deal of press for its controversial stories about her love life, which included trysts with co-stars Victor Mature and Jeff Chandler; a revelation about the latter actor's penchant for women's clothing was among the book's most scandalous statements. Williams also discussed her three marriages, which included loveless unions with a former college classmate and singer/actor Ben Gage, whom she described as an alcoholic spendthrift. In addition, the book recounted her various struggles with studio heads, fending off the amorous advances of Weissmuller and Howard Hughes, and dealing with the egos of co-stars like Gene Kelly and Lamas, who reportedly demanded total servitude from Williams.
Spending her later retirement with her fourth husband, actor Edward Bell, Williams largely stayed out of the limelight in her final decades, occasionally making public appearances, more often than not at swimming-related events. She died in 2013 at age 91, fondly remembered as a classic Hollywood star and an icon of the swimming world.
|Edward Bell||Husband||Met during 1984 Summer Olympics; Married Oct. 24, 1994|
|Jeff Chandler||Companion||Romantically involved in late 1950s; Worked together on "Raw Wind in Eden" (1958); No longer together; in her autobiography, Williams claimed Chandler was a cross-dresser|
|Ben Gage||Husband||Married Nov. 25, 1945; Divorced April 20, 1959|
|Susan Gage||Daughter||Born Oct. 1, 1953; father, Ben Gage|
|Benjamin Gage||Son||Born Aug. 6, 1949; father, Ben Gage|
|Kimball Gage||Son||Born Oct. 30, 1950; father, Ben Gage; Died May 6, 2008|
|Leonard Kovner||Husband||Met when he was a pre-med student at USC; Married June 27, 1940; Divorced 1944|
|Lorenzo Lamas||Step-Son||Born Jan. 20, 1958 to Fernando Lamas and Arlene Dahl; best known for his role as Lance on the long-running primetime soap opera, "Falcon Crest"|
|Fernando Lamas||Husband||Married in two separate ceremonies, a civil ceremony in Europe (some sources said 1963, others 1967) and one at Founders' Church of Religious Science near Hollywood, CA Dec. 31, 1969; married until his death Oct. 8, 1982|
|Bula Williams||Mother||Member of Ingelwood Board of Education; helped raise funds for neighborhood school's swimming pool|
|Los Angeles City College|
|"Esther Williams was to MGM what Sonja Henie had been to Twentieth Century-Fox--an athletically talented woman who for a virtual decade brought countless filmgoers to theatres. With her ... apple-pie-on-water escapist motion pictures, she racked up some $80 million at the boxoffice between 1944 and 1955."|
|"Wet she was a star." --Hollywood producer Joe Pasternak|
|"All they ever did for me at MGM was change my leading men and the water in my swimming pool." --Williams, quoted in "Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion"|
|She was named to the Swimming Pool Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1967.|
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