Esther Williams, the swimming champion turned actress who starred in glittering and aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and 1950s, has died. She was 91.
Williams’s died early Thursday in her sleep, according to her longtime publicist Harlan Boll.
Following in the footsteps of Sonja Henie, who went from skating champion to movie star, Williams became one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, appearing in spectacular swimsuit numbers that capitalized on her wholesome beauty and perfect figure.
Such films as “Easy to Wed,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Dangerous When Wet” followed the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Esther into the water.
The extravaganzas dazzled a second generation via television and the compilation films “That’s Entertainment.” Williams’ co-stars included the pick of the MGM contract list, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.
When hard times signaled the end of big studios and costly musicals in the mid-’50s, Williams tried non-swimming roles with little success. After her 1962 marriage to Fernando Lamas, her co-star in “Dangerous When Wet,” she retired from public life.
She explained in a 1984 interview: “A really terrific guy comes along and says, ‘I wish you’d stay home and be my wife,’ and that’s the most logical thing in the world for a Latin. And I loved being a Latin wife — you get treated very well. There’s a lot of attention in return for that sacrifice.”
She came to films after winning 100-meter freestyle and other races at the 1939 national championships and appearing at the San Francisco World’s Fair’s swimming exhibition.
As with Judy Garland, Donna Reed and other stars, Williams was introduced in one of Mickey Rooney’s Andy Hardy films, “Andy Hardy’s Double Life” (1942).
She also played a small role in “A Guy Named Joe” before “Bathing Beauty” in 1944 began the string of immensely popular musical spectaculars.
Among them: “Thrill of a Romance,” “Fiesta,” “This Time for Keeps,” “On an Island with You,” “Take Me out to the Ballgame,” “Duchess of Idaho,” “Pagan Love Song,” “Texas Carnival,” “Skirts Ahoy,” “Million Dollar Mermaid” (as Annette Kellerman, an earlier swimming champion turned entertainer), “Dangerous When Wet,” “Easy to Love” and “Jupiter’s Darling.”
Williams in a bathing suit became a favorite pinup of GI’s in World War II, and her popularity continued afterward. She was a refreshing presence among MGM’s stellar gallery — warm, breezy, with a frankness and self-deprecating humor that delighted interviewers.
She laughed as much as anyone over an assessment by Fanny Brice, the original “Funny Girl”: “Esther Williams? Wet, she’s a star. Dry, she ain’t.”
After leaving MGM, she starred in two Universal dramatic films, “The Unguarded Moment” and “Raw Wind in Eden.” Neither was successful. In 1961 Lamas directed her last film, “The Magic Fountain,” in Spain. It was never released in America.
When she published her autobiography in 1999, she titled it “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”