Eddie Fisher dies at 82; 1950s singing star brought low by scandalous love life

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010; 5:25 PM

Eddie Fisher, a pop-singing sensation of the 1950s who was at the center of one of Hollywood's most notorious romantic scandals when he divorced actress Debbie Reynolds to marry Elizabeth Taylor, died Sept. 22 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82 and had complications from recent hip surgery.

Mr. Fisher vaulted to fame in the early 1950s, selling tens of millions of records and charting dozens of Top 10 hits, including "Tell Me Why," "I'm Walking Behind You" and "Oh, My Pa-Pa." His beckoning tenor voice made him America's favorite teen idol in the years just before rock-and-roll made his stiff, heavily orchestrated music obsolete.

His stardom was soon overshadowed by the lurid drama surrounding his all-too-public love life. In 1955, he married the pert and popular Reynolds, and they were soon dubbed "America's favorite couple." They starred in the movie "Bundle of Joy" in 1956 and soon had two children of their own, including actress Carrie Fisher, who later played Princess Leia in "Star Wars."

The Fishers were close friends with Taylor and her husband at the time, Hollywood producer Mike Todd. After Todd was killed in an airplane crash in March 1958, Mr. Fisher consoled the grieving Taylor, and a romance soon bloomed. The public turned against Mr. Fisher when he divorced Reynolds in 1959 and married Taylor.

The glamorous couple had homes in Italy and Switzerland and were constant fodder for the gossip mill. In later years, Mr. Fisher said he tried in vain to get Taylor to limit her heavy drinking and pleaded with the servants to cut her off after five cocktails.

Taylor said she found Mr. Fisher equally unstable. According to her memoirs, she awoke one night in their Italian villa to find him pointing a gun at her head.

"Don't worry, Elizabeth," he said, in the words of the memoir. "I'm not going to kill you. You're too beautiful."

Mr. Fisher had a role in the 1960 drama "Butterfield 8," for which Taylor won an Oscar as best actress, but by then he was already fading from fame. But when Taylor went to Rome a year later to film "Cleopatra," she fell into the arms of her co-star Richard Burton.

Awkwardly hoping for a reconciliation, Mr. Fisher became the most famous cuckold in the world and was the butt of comedy routines and salacious scandal sheets. When he called Taylor at one of their homes, Burton answered the phone and explained in crudely graphic terms exactly why he was there with Taylor.

In his 1999 memoir "Been There, Done That," Mr. Fisher wrote with some bewilderment: "I was Eddie Fisher - women loved me, they didn't cheat on me."

He finally agreed to a divorce in 1964.

"At some point after working with Burton," Mr. Fisher wrote in a 1981 memoir, "I think she began to see me as a jailer. I was spoiling her fun."

Taylor, who married and divorced Burton twice on her way to eight marriages, casually dismissed Mr. Fisher as "the busboy."

"I couldn't stop loving her, and needing her," he wrote in his 1999 autobiography. "I missed her more than I had ever missed anyone in my life."

Edwin Jack Fisher was born Aug. 10, 1928, in Philadelphia and grew up as one of seven children. His father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was a struggling grocer in South Philadelphia.

Young Eddie won talent shows and was singing on the radio by the time he was 15. He moved to New York at 17 to join bands led by Buddy Morrow and Charlie Ventura.

While worked at hotels in the Borscht Belt of New York's Catskill Mountains, he was discovered by comedian Eddie Cantor, who hired Mr. Fisher for a national tour.

"In one year," Cantor predicted in 1949, "this boy will be America's most important new singer of popular songs."

Mr. Fisher's first hit came in 1950 with "Thinking of You." He quickly followed that with "Any Time," "Lady of Spain" and "(You Gotta Have) Heart" from the musical "Damn Yankees." He hit No. 1 with "Wish You Were Here" and "I'm Walking Behind You" (both in 1952), "Oh, My Pa-Pa" (1953) and "I Need You Now" (1954).

When Mr. Fisher was drafted into the Army in 1951, he was sent on tours to entertain troops in Korea. He had radio and TV shows on NBC from 1953 to 1959. By 1953, he was taking home $1 million a year.

A decade later, after his romantic debacle with Reynolds and Taylor, his fame and its accouterments were almost gone. He married actress Connie Stevens in 1967 and had two more children; they were divorced in 1969.

A year later, Mr. Fisher declared bankruptcy. He attempted occasional comebacks, but the last 40 years of his career were spent in sporadic engagements in Las Vegas and in second-tier concert halls.

In some ways, Mr. Fisher became better known as a one-time star fallen low than for his actual achievements. He lamented that Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett had built solid careers while he could never escape his past.

In two memoirs, Mr. Fisher revealed that he had been addicted to amphetamines and cocaine for more than 30 years and had spent $20 million on drugs and gambling during his life.

He also named many of his more celebrated romantic conquests, ticking off a seemingly endless list that included Marlene Dietrich, Ann-Margret, Judy Garland, Mia Farrow, Kim Novak, Angie Dickinson, Dinah Shore and Juliet Prowse.

When his tell-all 1999 autobiography came out, Carrie Fisher threatened to change her last name to Reynolds, adding: "That's it. I'm having my DNA fumigated."

Other survivors include a son with Reynolds, Todd Fisher; and two daughters with Stevens, actresses Joely Fisher and Tricia Leigh Fisher.

In 1975, Mr. Fisher married 21-year-old beauty queen Terry Richard, but they were divorced in less than a year. His fifth wife was businesswoman Betty Young Lin, whom he married in 1993. She died in 2001.

Asked to explain his peculiar appeal, as a faded pop star who romanced some of the most glamorous women in the world, Mr. Fisher said in 1999, "I wasn't the handsomest of men but I was adorable."

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