ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And now the terrible news that Debbie Reynolds died today. Reynolds was Carrie Fisher's mother, and Fisher of course died just yesterday at age 60. Right now we have NPR's Neda Ulaby to tell us about Debbie Reynolds, who was a major star for over five decades on TV, in the movies, on stage. Neda, what happened today?
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Robert, the details are still unclear, but it appears that Reynolds was taken Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles today after having trouble breathing. She died at the age of 84. It's a sad ending to a life that in many ways was not easy. She talked about her early years in the 1974 documentary "That's Entertainment!"
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT!")
DEBBIE REYNOLDS: I was only 16 and still Mary Frances Reynolds when I entered the Miss Burbank contest. I did it as a lark to get a blouse and a scarf that they were giving away to all the contestants. Well, as fate would have it, an MGM talent scout was in the audience, and in a year, I was under contract to the biggest studio in Hollywood.
SIEGEL: And it was in Hollywood that she filmed her biggest hit...
SIEGEL: ...In 1952.
ULABY: That's right, at MGM. She starred as an aspiring starlet in "Singin' In The Rain."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SINGIN' IN THE RAIN")
REYNOLDS: (As Kathy Selden, singing) When we left the movie show, the future wasn't bright. But came the dawn. The show goes on, and I don't want to say good night.
UNIDENTIFIED CHOIR: (Singing) So say good morning.
REYNOLDS: (As Kathy Selden, singing) Good morning. Rainbows are shining through.
SIEGEL: Neda, what do we know about what those years were like for Debbie Reynolds?
ULABY: Well, "Singin' In The Rain," the movie that really launched her into international stardom, was a grueling experience for her. She didn't know how to dance. Gene Kelly, her choreographer and co-star, made her practice until her feet bled.
SIEGEL: Debbie Reynolds also made dozens of other movies. She starred in two television shows, two Broadway shows. And she was also a cabaret star in Vegas.
ULABY: Yeah, she also owned her own hotel there for a while. But Reynolds' professional life was occasionally overshadowed by tragedy. She married three times, lost one husband to Elizabeth Taylor in a scandal that was huge at the time. She had two other husbands that took terrible advantage of her financially, but she really just kept her head up.
Debbie Reynolds had a great sense of humor about how Carrie Fisher would poke fun of their relationship, even in the book "Postcards From The Edge," which got turned into a movie. Reynolds wanted to play the role that was basically herself, but it ended up going to Shirley MacLaine.
SIEGEL: You know, I first remember being aware of Debbie Reynolds as the actress who played Tammy in a movie back in the 1950s when I was a kid. I wonder what you think she'll be most remembered for.
ULABY: So much, Robert. What a life she had. She was the Unsinkable Molly Brown. She was the voice of Wilbur in the 1973 animated version of "Charlotte's Web." She was Debra Messing's mom in the TV show "Will & Grace."
And she was deeply involved in all kinds of charities ranging from mental illness to preserving various kinds of Hollywood memorabilia - it was really hard for her when she had to sell a lot of that stuff a few years ago - to the Girl Scouts of America. Debbie Reynolds, believe it or not, was a Girl Scout leader for many years.
SIEGEL: Neda Ulaby, thank you for talking with us about the sad news today - the death of Debbie Reynolds one day after the death of her daughter, Carrie Fisher.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.