His initial goal in life was to play shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kelly left the Broadway stage and his family’s successful dance school in Pittsburgh to make a name for himself in Hollywood. (Boy, did he.)
His film Anchors Aweigh (1945) was the first musical to mix live-action and animation. Kelly wanted to dance with Mickey Mouse, but Walt Disney wouldn’t allow it, so he danced with Jerry the Mouse instead.
For his role in The Pirate (1948), he invented “the Ubangi” (now called a “camera offset”), a mechanism to get low-angle shots that were virtually impossible because of the large size of Technicolor cameras.
Olympic swimmer Esther Williams, Kelly’s costar in Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949), apparently detested him. In her memoir, she recalls that while Kelly was “one of the most winning and likable of men onscreen, he was nothing less than a tyrant behind the camera.” He was “merciless” and “his words dripped sarcasm with every step.”
He never won an Academy Award, but he was given an Honorary Oscar in 1952 “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”
He created an experimental film called Invitation to the Dance (1956). There is no dialogue in the film; all narratives are told through only dance and mime.
On television, he danced alongside Sugar Ray Robinson and Mickey Mantle in Dancing: A Man’s Game (1958), released on DVD last month.
In 1960, the Paris Opera House commissioned Kelly to choose his own material and create a modern ballet for the company. The result was Pas De Dieux, “the first jazz ballet ever staged by the stately old Paris Opera.” Kelly received a fifteen-minute ovation and twenty-seven curtain calls, and a few days later he was made a Knight of the Legion D’Honneur by the Director-General of the Opera [Photos from LIFE.]