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Editor’s Note: The following interview took place in 1998 when Debbie Reynolds was 66 years old. The actor/singer/dancer/author died on December 28, 2016, at the age of 84. She was the recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award only two years ago; Reynolds’ daughter, Carrie Fisher, who died the day before her mother, presented the award to her mom.

Whether belting out a song or belting a man in the jaw, Debbie Reynolds is still young enough, cool enough, and hip enough to get jiggy with OutSmart’s Blase DiStefano.
By Blase DiStefano

Debbie Reynold's was OutSmart's covergirl in September 1998.
Debbie Reynolds was OutSmart‘s covergirl in September 1998.

The Titantic may have sunk, but passenger Molly Brown didn’t. And neither has Debbie Reynolds, the woman who played the title character in 1964’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Through three failed marriages (one to singer Eddie Fisher, who left her for Elizabeth Taylor) and a number of financial difficulties, Reynolds, like Molly Brown, has kept her head above water.

Her latest trials are not keeping her down either. Her last husband says she owes him money and the marriage failed because she’s a drunk (“When do I have time to drink?” she says). And she had to wrestle with the decision to sell her Las Vegas hotel and casino, which housed a museum with movie memorabilia (now in storage). At a bankruptcy auction in early August [1998] the World Wrestling Federation purchased it for $9 million, which, according to Reynolds’ son, Todd Fisher, barely covers the cost of the renovations that had been made.

No matter. After last year’s turn as the mother of a gay man in In & Out, Reynolds, now 66, is still the survivor, still working and still rapping…with a delightful sense of humor.

Debbie Reynolds: Hello.

Blase DiStefano: Hi, I was calling for Debbie Reynolds.

Yes, this is me, and I’m on the other line. May I help you?

Yes, I was given this number for an interview with you.

Okay. Could you do me a favor?

Sure.

I just have a call from my charity on the other line. Could you give me ten minutes and call me back?

Sure.

Thank you very much.

Ten minutes later:

Blase DiStefano: Debbie?

Debbie Reynolds: Hello, I’m sorry. It was my charity. I work for a group for emotionally disturbed children and disturbed families and drug abuse center and an AIDS center. We’re doing some big event, and they just got me earlier than I thought. Usually they call me in the afternoon or evening, so I apologize for that.

Oh, that’s quite all right. Would you prefer that I call you at another time?

No, it’s just as well. It’s always the same.

Have you gotten used to it?

My life has always been this way, because when you have been a mother and you raise five children and you have a career and you’ve been in the business 50 years and you work for a charity and you work for Girl Scouts, when you involve yourself in what is called the swim of life, naturally there are phone calls. If you are a recluse, you have a nice quiet life.

Some days I say I don’t know why I’m doing it. I call people and they say, “Debbie, I don’t involve myself. I keep my life simple.” I admire that, but I just wonder how they do it. There are too many needy people, and I always feel I’ve been so privileged to be in show business and to have a life where I could afford to go buy a dress, I could afford to go to any restaurant I want, and buy tickets for a play and not sit in the highest balcony. I just feel so fortunate that I think one must give back. I’ve always felt like that. I was born Aries, April 1, so I’ve always felt that I was able to handle two or three or up to five things at a time.

That’s why you have five children.

[Laughs] Well, I have three stepchildren and two of mine, and I raised two others, so in actual fact, I feel like I raised seven. Actually, I forgot another one that lived with me for 10 years, so that would be eight. Once they move in and know the rent is free and the food is free, I think that’s the motivating factor. I’m not sure it’s my philosophy.

[Laughs] Well, I’m going to be in California soon, and I don’t have a place to stay…

[Laughs] Well, you go live in your car. I did for a while. It was very cold.

How long did you have to do that?

Over a year. But I finally got through that period of my life, and, well, everybody has rough times. Nothing’s easy. I can’t say anything is. But what is the story about, so we’ll get on track.

Well, I’m in Houston, Texas. And you’re supposed to be going to Galveston in September.

I’m going to Corpus Christi and to two or three other places.

Galveston is about 45 minutes or so from Houston, so that’s why we’re doing this interview, but…

How very nice of you.

Well, I called the publicist in Galveston to find out how the sales were going for your show, and she said you sold out a month ago.

Well, good for me.

Debbie Reynolds
Debbie Reynolds in The Unsinkable Molly Brown

You’re damn right.

That’s very sweet. Tell them to give me another day. Tell them you spoke to Debbie, and she’s willing to stay over a day. Actually, I hate doing one-nighters. I’d rather stay and work two days, ’cause then I get to see people and visit. Otherwise you fly in and fly out.

You were born in El Paso, right?

El Paso. But my family is from Dallas and Alice and Mexia and Amarillo. Both sides of my family are all from the Texas area. And I still have a 97-year-old aunt in Dallas. Aunt Mary Jo. I was just there visiting her, only about two months ago. I don’t get a chance to always…but most of the time, when I’m there, no matter what, I’m getting up early and I’m gonna rent a car and I’m driving to my Aunt Mary’s. ‘Cause that’s a mighty big age. She’s a great lady.

Well, so are you, and you’re a young-looking grandmother, which is why you could play the mother of a gay man in the movie In & Out.

I did.

If you thought a child or a grandchild of yours was gay, would you say anything to them, or would you just wait for them to bring it up?

Well, it’s like heterosexuality or manic depression or asthma or whatever. That would be my child, so I would adore the child equally. I think you’re born with homosexuality, and a lot of people don’t understand that and seem to have it fixed in their minds as a sexual preference.

I always get really upset with that, because being in show business, I have so many wonderful very special friends that are homosexual, and they have told me their stories, and they all kind of start out the same. They didn’t know they were different until one day they just felt real different, and they didn’t want to go to the dance with the girl, they really wanted to take their best buddy. They didn’t know what it was and what the feeling was, they just felt that way and they didn’t have a name for it.

A lot of us come from small towns and don’t know. Like me, I wasn’t raised in a place with a lot of Jewish people. I never knew bad words, about calling Jewish kids certain bad words. I was raised with black people and Mexicans, and we were the only whites, and we were called poor white trash. So I always thought my last name was Poor White Trash. [Laughs]

So I was born without prejudice. So what I do is, if I don’t understand something, I try to understand it in a non-prejudicial way. There was no word for gay in those days. There were a lot of other bad words, a lot of those flying around. And homosexuality was totally misunderstood. I think it’s come a long way. I just wish more people truly understood it, and I wish people would stop preaching other things.

But unfortunately we do live where prejudice is passed on. Prejudice comes from ignorance, which means we’re not taught correctly; in fact we’re not taught at all. We just pick up what we hear. And that is always upsetting to me.

Being that I was born poor, I had a lot to learn, and I have learned a lot. I’ve traveled around the world, and I’ve met great people and educated people and philosophical people and people with no education but who were brilliant. So I have learned it’s not how much education you have, it’s what’s in your heart and how hard you want to study yourself, what you want to learn about yourself and what contribution you want to give to the world in a good way. So I would take my homosexual child and dress him in drag and give him all my old clothes and makeup. [Laughs]

I’m kidding.

[Laughs] I know.

I would not deny him what he felt. I would not be angry. I would not throw him or her out. It would be a lesson for everyone. Everyone would have to work at it, and everyone would have to love each other through it all and be understanding of what we are.

When you first arrived in Hollywood, I don’t imagine…

Gay was very accepted. In show business, there is little prejudice. All the people that were dress designers and set designers and people that did the floral arrangements, all the creative areas were filled with homosexuals.

And you dated a lot of them.

Yes I did. But everyone had to stay closeted in those days and not discuss it, because there was prejudice in the outside world. I dated Tab Hunter, and we’re still the dearest of friends.

Did the studios arrange the dates?

Yes. That’s how we would meet. They’d have premieres, and each studio would have their starlets or their young new stars meet the other new stars, and that’s how we’d go out on dates. That’s how Janet Leigh met Tony Curtis. He was at Universal and she at MGM. Like Jeff Hunter married Barbara Rush; they met on a blind date and were married for quite a long while. Bob Wagner—”R.J.,” as we called him—he was at Fox Studio, I was at MGM, that’s how I met him, and we dated for like three years; then he met Barbara Stanwyck, and I was out of the picture then.

So he was one of the few straight guys you dated.

R.J. and Hugh O’Brien. I dated Richard Anderson, he was straight. There was a boy called Craig Hill, he was gay, nobody knew this. I didn’t date Rock Hudson, but I knew him. We were friends, but he was at Universal. Rock was handsome, and he’d go out once in a while in a studio-arranged situation, but mostly Rock was always with his best buddy. He was an actor, good-looking guy, really sweet fellow. Just tough and rough, and they rode horses and wore blue jeans. I mean, there were no skirts there. [Laughs]

But in those days you didn’t carouse around. You had private parties.

Did you ever date a gay woman?

No, you know, I was never aware of gay women because they didn’t dress in the way that’s allowed today. There was one woman at MGM Studios who was an editor called Adrienne, and she wore men’s tailored suits and a skirt. She taught me how to cut and edit film. This was a very talented, very educated woman, and she lived with another lady. Now that’s going back to 1949 and the ’50s and the ’60s, when gay women were not out. And gay women were not readily hired in show business because there was a prejudice—not against gay men but gay women.

Probably because it was the straight men who were doing the hiring.

Well, absolutely. And chasing everyone around the desk. [Laughs]

My best girlfriend was a beautiful girl who won the Miss Burbank beauty contest right after me. She was a voluptuous, tall beauty, whereas I was little Girl Scout “Tammy.” They didn’t chase me, ’cause I would have belted them. [Laughs]

My girlfriend had big boobs and long black hair. She was always running, but I had that happen to me much later, only it was outside of show business, from a bank president who I asked for a charity contribution. He grabbed me and kissed me. So I dropped my charity books, and I hit him as hard as I could right in the jaw. I hit him so hard I knocked him across the coffee table, and the secretary came running in. I said to him, “I’m gonna call the police unless you write me a check for $10,000 for my charity.” And he got up off the floor and wrote me a check for $10,000, so I got a big contribution for that one. [Laughs]

I was about 28. I never had that happen before nor since, and I hope I never do. But of course, if I got $10,000 a hit for my charity…

[Laughs] For a while, you were off screen. Were you offered any parts that you wish you hadn’t turned down?

No, I really never turned down anything other than Carnal Knowledge because you had to take your top off, and I’m not good at that. I know other people say, “Well, it’s a role, it’s not really you.” I never could do that, because that’s just too personal for me. It’s not in my nature. I don’t want my children to see… Look, when I was young, I could have, but I didn’t do it, and I certainly wouldn’t do it now.

My girlfriend Carroll Baker, who’s a wonderful actress, says to me, “Debbie, it’s part of acting. You’re just being childish,” and I said, “Well that’s probably true. But you know, the good thing in life is that you have a choice to make and I have a choice to make. And it doesn’t bother you and it does bother me, so why should I do it? If I get a good script and it demands nudity, I’ll send it to you immediately.” So she laughed at me and said, “Well, you’ll just be square your whole life.” Well, I’m not square. In fact now I’m probably just the opposite.

I’ve never thought of you as square.

No, I think that I’m a hip lady, but I’m very, very square about physical things. I’m old-fashioned in many ways. And that’s why I keep getting destroyed by husbands, because I’m very naïve and very old-fashioned. I think you should trust your husband. If you say you love him, you should trust him, and every time I get killed. This third husband was my last. It truly has to be, otherwise someone must come and hit me with a huge mallet and say she died of a blunt blow to her head by her children, because they loved her and didn’t want her to marry again.

[Laughs] Three is enough.

That’s right. The third time you really gotta be slapped in the face. So I made three mistakes and that’s enough. But with the first one, I had my beautiful children. I don’t mind that one. The second one I do mind, and this last one I do mind. He just did a story for the Enquirer. He says I owe him money and that the marriage broke up because I’m a drunk. I work every day for 50 years—when do I have time to drink? I think it’s such a joke when people write that. I’m so tired of that stupid rumor.

I guess that comes from your daughter’s book [Postcards from the Edge, made into a film in which Shirley MacLaine plays Meryl Streep’s drunkard mother]. But it wasn’t about you, was it?

No, but everybody thought it was, and that’s why I still have to answer questions about this stupid drinking thing. So bored with that. See, I didn’t beat my kids, I didn’t screw the world. Let’s see, I didn’t rob anybody, I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t commit suicide, I don’t take drugs, and I don’t smoke cigars. So, isn’t this awful? So what’s left?

I guess Postcards just gave them the opportunity to use something.

If Carrie [Fisher, Reynolds’ daughter] wrote it, they think it’s supposed to be about me, which is actually quite rude. Because she is a writer, she certainly can make up the characters. Are you going to tell me every writer has to live every story?

Would you let Carrie write The Debbie Reynolds Story?

Well, only with Todd [Reynolds’ son], because I don’t want her writing another Postcards.

Who would you choose to play you?

At this point, the only one who could really play me would be Meg Ryan. But I’m still living my story.

Of today’s stars, who do you think has great talent?

I think we have some brilliant talent. I think Meryl Streep is brilliant—she’s [this generation’s] Bette Davis. I think Meg Ryan is wonderful. I think Geena Davis is just excellent, and beautiful besides. I think Demi Moore and Sally Field are excellent. I think Debra Winger was marvelous; I’m sorry she got tired of being picked on.

Of yesteryear’s stars, who do you think was a great talent?

No one in the world is like Judy Garland. She was a great actress, beautiful, beyond-belief singer, comedienne, she could dance quite well, she was petite, she was gorgeous, look at that talent. Nobody like her.

So what do you think of the guy who played your gay son in In & Out?

Kevin Kline is a genius beyond words and one of the sweetest men I’ve ever worked with. I think Kevin is Sir Laurence Olivier and Erroll Flynn and Cary Grant all rolled into one. I didn’t really know until I worked with him.

Any good scenes on the cutting-room floor?

We had some long, really good scenes about homosexuality. I thought they were important scenes to leave in between a mother talking about that situation and how she felt about it and what she didn’t understand. I don’t know why they took it out, because I thought it was very good information. And being that I feel I honestly know about homosexuality, I felt that I did add to that scene.

So what does your show consist of?

I do a run down memory lane, meaning I run film clips of movies that I did—Three Little Words, The Tender Trap, Abba-Dabba, Singing in the Rain, The Singing Nun, [The Unsinkable] Molly Brown—and I sing the songs from those movies. I do my impressions of everyone—Streisand and Dr. Ruth and Bette Davis and Hepburn. It’s about an hour and a half. It’s a good show; people like it.

Do you do this all over the country?

After Texas, I play Atlantic City and Vegas and Laughlin, Nevada. I just work clubs and theaters all over America.

How often?

Forty-four weeks a year. I’m here and there and everywhere.

That’s pretty amazing. With all that you’ve been through in your life, I can see a lot of parallels with you and the character Molly Brown. I see you as a survivor. What gets you through the hard times?

My faith in the fact that I believe God’s looking after me and I’m here because I have a purpose, and I feel that I should fight hard to try to survive and to try to do good for others as well as myself and my family. I live by the Ten Commandments, and I believe in them, and I stay right with that.

Did you ever think about walking away from Hollywood?

No, this is my life. I love this, and I feel God gave me the talent—it’s a gift, and I love it.

Well, you don’t have to worry about walking away like Dolores Hart and becoming a nun because you’ve already done that [in The Singing Nun].

[Laughs] I knew Dolores when she was at Fox. I knew when she made that decision. At that time she was dating some famous movie star, a big handsome brute. She said, “No, I’m going to be a nun,” and he and everyone tried to talk her out of it. She said it was her calling.

She’s still a nun.

Oh, yeah. June Haver was going to be a nun, and then she met Fred MacMurray just before her vows, and he was able to talk her out of it.

Of all your films, do you have a favorite?

Molly Brown.

You were nominated [for Best Actress], but Julie Andrews won [for Mary Poppins]. I was surprised at the time because I assumed you were going to win, and how could anybody win for Mary Poppins?

That’s so sweet. But Molly Brown was a wonderful role, and I wanted to play it so badly, and I think I played her really great. I felt not badly for not winning but to a role as simple as Mary Poppins. 

If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only have one film with you, not yours, what would it be?

I couldn’t pick just one. Well, maybe Dark Victory. [Pause] It would be a love story, it would be something I could run over and over and over again, it would make me cry—I like romantic movies.

With a happy ending?

With a happy ending, though Dark Victory didn’t have a happy ending, but I’m trying to come up with one that did. I loved The Heiress, which did not have a happy ending either, but I loved the acting. But I can’t come up with one. If I were on an island alone, I’d rather have the vaults of MGM and Paramount, which would be all the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals.

[Laughs] You would ask for the friggin’ vaults.

I would like the vaults, so I could go in every day and get all the musicals, like Flying Down to Rio, Gigi, The Sound of Music…that was great for Julie [Andrews], it was wonderful.

Okay, on that same island you can only have one person with you, and it can’t be a friend or a relative or a lover, who would it be?

A talking Myna bird.

A talking Myna bird? [Laughs]

Or a talking parrot. You know, my daughter has a parrot, a green parrot, and her name is Joan, and she talks and she sings opera. She’s fabulous. I’d probably like that. You could teach them words and you could sing together. And they don’t get fresh. [Laughs]

They would be outside, and you wouldn’t have to clean up their mess. They’re very good company.

Anything in the works?

Last week, I just finished a movie called Halloween Town. I play a good witch like Billie Burke. It’s for Disney, for television, and it will be out October 10. Then I did another one called Christmas Wish, and that’ll be out for Christmas. And now I’m doing my tour and I’m doing my charity ball in October, and I have a lot of work lined up. But I want to be here, ’cause like yesterday I was with my granddaughter all day, and we swam and that was fun.

What’s her name?

Billie Catherine, with a C. She’ll be a movie star one day. She calls me Abba Dabba.

[From the song] “Abba Dabba Honeymoon.”

Yeah, and she knows the whole song. We dance together, and some days she calls me Sparkle, because she came to see my act and she liked my red sparkly dresses and my show clothes. I said, “Well, I’m going to leave all my costumes to you, dear.” She said, “Oh, thank you Grandma, so I’ll be a star, too.” She’s very pretty and she’s very smart.

That’s sweet. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Okay, darling, take care of yourself, and thank you for caring about me way back in Molly Brown.

You’re the best.

Thank you, dear.

To read an interview with Carrie Fisher, click here.

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Blase DiStefano

Blase DiStefano is the Creative Director/Entertainment Editor for OutSmart Magazine.

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