A Parisian In America

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Only a handful of actresses danced in feature films with both Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. One was Leslie Caron.

Although her last feature film was a decade ago, she hasn’t been exactly idle since.

“I won an Emmy in 2007 for a guest role on ‘Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,’ which was a grand moment for me,” Caron says from London, where she moved in 2013 from her native France to be near family.

Her autobiography, “Thank Heaven,” was published in 2010, and in 2013 she appeared in an episode of the French TV crime series “Jo.”

“So I’m not retired and would love to do more television or a movie,” she says.

Shortly before her birthday last year, at the age of 82, Caron even tackled a demanding stage role.

“I traveled to California for a play — ‘Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks’ at the Laguna Playhouse — which was one of the best parts I’ve ever had,” she says. “It was a two-character play with six dance numbers and seven costume changes. A person of 50 would have found it a bit difficult. I would love to have continued with it to Broadway, but that would have been too strenuous.”

Trained as a dancer, Caron was just a teenager when Gene Kelly discovered her performing in the Ballets des Champs-Élysées in Paris in the late 1940s.

“The husband of a dancer I shared my dressing room with somehow knew Gene, who had seen me and wanted me to do a screen test for a movie,” she recalls.

The film turned out to be “An American in Paris” and rehearsals were tough.

“I wasn’t used to dancing in ballet shoes for six to eight hours a day,” she says. “And when I arrived in America, I had mononucleosis and was undernourished having lived through World War II and food shortages. So I was very anemic.”

Throughout the ’50s, Caron appeared in other musicals, including “Daddy Long Legs” with Fred Astaire.

“Fred and Gene came from different eras,” she says. “Fred danced on his toes and barely touched the ground — an elegant, fluid dancer. Gene’s dancing was very athletic.”

Astaire’s wife, ill from lung cancer, died during production.

“He would bury his head in a towel and cry,” Caron remembers. “Fred loved the film, which had a lot of youth and joy, so I think it helped him through a very bad time.”

Caron continued to work in film and TV into the ’90s, when she decided it was time for a change.

“I was hitting 60 and beginning to think my career was over, so I embarked on a new venture,” she says.

Proving you are never too old to start a new chapter in life, she purchased and renovated an old riverside building just outside Paris, turning it into a successful bed and breakfast.

“I managed it for about 15 years, until the economy crashed,” she says.

Today, Caron hopes for more roles.

“I’m not aiming for any Academy Awards,” she says. “It just gives me a great deal of pleasure to keep working.”

 

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns and interviews for more than 550 magazines and newspapers.

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