Debbie Reynolds: Ever and always a trouper

Person to Person: Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher
Hollywood veteran Debbie Reynolds.
CBS News

(CBS News) Debbie Reynolds is a Hollywood performer who's played countless roles during her long career. Yet it's one real-life role that often seems to overshadow all the others. She talks about it with Mo Rocca:

In the pantheon of Hollywood's great triple-threat performers, you can count Debbie Reynolds: acting, singing and dancing for nearly 65 years.

"Is it fair to say that you're the ultimate trouper?" asked Rocca.

"I'm stubborn," she offered. "I'm very stubborn. And I would never give up, ever, about anything."

That can-do spirit came in handy when, at the age of 19, she was cast opposite Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain." Twenty years younger than Kelly, she'd had dance training - no training of any kind."

It took three months of intensive dance lessons, but when the cameras rolled, Reynolds kept in step with co-stars Kelly and Donald O'Connor.

"We danced 10, 12 hours every day. There were no days off," she said.

"You say your feet were bleeding -- what else hurt?" asked Rocca.

"I think your heart hurt -- were you going to be able to do it? Could you keep up? Were you going to fail?" Reynolds said. "And Gene Kelly kind of scared me, because he was the boss, and he was brilliant, and he was a wonderful teacher. He had to teach me. And to be given a little kitty cat, and expect it to be a lion, it didn't happen overnight. I had to work, work, work without question."

Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds and Gene Kelly in "Singin' in the Rain." MGM

And just like her character, Kathy Selden, Reynolds emerged a bona fide "movie star." Funny, since all Mary Frances Reynolds wanted to be was . . . a gym teacher.

But when she won the Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948 (she got a free blouse for entering), Reynolds was discovered by a Warner Brothers talent scout.

Reynolds recalled her screen test: "There was a camera there, and they said, 'Look in the camera.' And I said, 'Okay.' And they said, 'Now just talk, just ad-lib.' I said, 'Why would I do that? I don't know what I'm doing here, this is all so silly.'

"And they said, 'Well, you want to be a movie star, don't you?' And I said, 'No. I don't know anything about it. I'm just here 'cause I won this contest, and I got a free blouse and scarf. That's the only reason I'm here. I don't know what you guys are doing wasting your time on me.'

"So Jack Warner saw the test, and he said, 'Well, she's funny. Let's put her under contract, $65 a week.'"

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: Debbie Reynolds tells Mo Rocca about the struggles her daughter, Carrie Fisher, fought through in order to "sur-thrive." To watch click on the video player below.

Mary Frances became Debbie, and soon enough was palling around on the MGM lot with Elizabeth Taylor.

"Elizabeth was really a gal, you know? She was a dame," Reynolds said. "She called me a little Girl Scout -- She was right about that, I was just not a sexual, I didn't know anything about that world. I didn't know about the worldly world. And she knew everything about the worldly world, and shared it with me.

"She was funny. She was really a bawdy broad. And I loved being with her. We had a lot of fun together."

And then Reynolds met the crooner Eddie Fisher.