You’re probably too young to remember this but back in the 1950s, America’s favorite TV show was a western called “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” The star was Hugh O’Brian, an exceptionally handsome actor (and ladies man) who systematically bedded pretty much every beautiful woman in Hollywood and a lot of others who weren’t.
One who got away was Debbie Reynolds. Eight years ago, O’Brian, then in his late 80s, hired me to co-write his memoirs. One of the people he asked me to interview was his longtime friend Debbie.
I had grown up watching “Singin’ in the Rain” over and over, and could not have been more excited to visit Reynolds at her home, a compound on one of the long streets traversing the hills separating the L.A. basin from the San Fernando Valley.
Reynolds lived on the lower part of the property, and her daughter actress and author Carrie Fisher, who was away at the time, lived in a larger house up the hill.
The day I visited, Debbie (she allowed me to address her by her first name) was getting ready to conduct an auction of some of her costumes, which subsequently went for millions of dollars. We sat surrounded by ball gowns and other costumes from a lifetime of work in the movies.
She told me that when she did “Singin’ in the Rain,” two things stood out. The first: that she was just 19 when she made the film, and since she had no car and had to ride three buses to get to the studio, sometimes she simply slept on the set.
The second thing she told me was that the first kiss she had ever received in her life came from Gene Kelly. It took place during the scene at the end of the film, where they gaze lovingly at each other, at the billboard announcing their new film, and then embrace.
Debbie had grown up in a religious home and knew nothing about boys. She certainly had no way to understand what was happening when Gene Kelly unceremoniously stuck his tongue down her throat.
She recoiled, she said, as if she had been bitten by a snake. She screamed. People had to calm her down for the next take. And she told me that if you look at the scene in the movie, Kelly looks considerably less than enthused with her as he plants a more demure, tongue-less kiss on her lips.
Okay, so what would you do? If you’re a 19-year-old about to become a movie star, and you’ve got to learn to kiss properly. Not just for the movies, but for real life as well.
Who you gonna call?
“He was perfect,” she said dreamily, remembering those kisses from almost half a century earlier. “He was kind, gentle, a true gentleman. And so unbelievably handsome.”
O’Brian, she said, never tried to turn the kiss into anything more, although they did practice for hours. His advice, which he recalls in his book, “Hugh O’Brian, Or What’s Left Of Him,” was as follows: “First of all, when you kiss a fellow in real life, you close your eyes and pucker up your lips. But that’s not the way to do it on screen. You’ve got to let him come in to you, and you’ve got to keep your eyes open—so we can see that you want him. Then he comes in, and you kiss him very sweetly, and he kisses you very sweetly.”
“And he certainly did not try to slip me the tongue,” Debbie added, her eyes flashing.
And now Debbie Reynolds belongs to history. She passed away on Wednesday while working on funeral arrangements for her daughter Carrie who died just one day earlier.
Her son Todd Fisher said this week, “she loved taking care of my sister more than anything. So, she gets to do that and that's what she wanted to do.” According to ABC News, Fisher said Reynolds "missed her daughter" and that she wanted to "see her again. … "I don't think she really meant it quite like that, but ... she went to go see her again."
When we met, Debbie was as kind and gracious as one would hope a Hollywood legend might be. And she was no one hit wonder—her career spanned more than 70 years, including a one-woman show in which she sang, danced, and told stories, even into her ‘80s.
“One woman told me,” she laughed, “I’m so glad I got to see you while you were still alive.
“So that’s what I always tell my audiences. ‘See Debbie Reynolds sing and dance...while she’s still alive.”
I don’t know how these things work, but now that Debbie is reunited with her daughter, I hope the second person she meets in heaven is her old pal Hugh O’Brian, who passed away this September. I hope he greets her with the same kind of kiss he taught her back when she was a 19-year-old girl figuring out life in Hollywood.
New York Times best-selling author and Shark Tank entrepreneur Michael Levin runs BusinessGhost.com, a national book ghostwriting firm.