​Thank heaven for Leslie Caron

Gene Kelly memorably serenaded Leslie Caron in the classic motion picture, "An American In Paris." And movie lovers continue to sing her praises to this day. Jane Pauley has our Sunday Profile:

Sixty-five years ago, Leslie Caron was 19, and on the cusp of stardom. Her screen debut, "An American in Paris," was named Best Picture in 1951.

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Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in "An American in Paris."
MGM

Pauley asked, "What's your favorite dance routine from 'American in Paris'?"

"Ah, I think in the big ballet, I enjoyed the Toulouse-Lautrec one."

"What about the chair?"

"God help me!" Caron laughed. "I couldn't believe that. Well, you know, there was a lot of censorship. Everything was too bawdy, too sexy, too overt. The lady from the censorship bureau came and saw it and said, 'This won't do.' I said, 'What can I do with a chair?' 'Too sexy.' So I had to do it again and tone it down."

She'd been discovered at age 17, at the Ballet des Champs Elysees in Paris, by Gene Kelly. She calls it luck: "The night Gene Kelly saw me dance, I wasn't supposed to be on the stage," Caron said. "The dancer who was picked was sick, so I did the part.

"Good luck happens to a lot of people all the time, repeatedly. The important thing is to recognize good luck and to make good use of it."

She claims she wasn't beautiful. ("No. I wasn't!" she laughed. "Let's say I pretended then.") She acted the part with tender charm.

She also starred as an orphaned ingenue beguiling a lonely older man, earning the first of two Oscar nominations, in "Lili"; and another orphaned ingenue beguiling an even older Fred Astaire in "Daddy Long Legs." "It's strange, because now you think twice about having an older man play around with a young girl," said Caron.


"People weren't sensitive to that at all?"

"No, no, no."

In "Gigi," a teenage schoolgirl is being prepared for a life as a courtesan:

Gigi: "We don't marry, is that it?"
Estelle: "Instead of getting married at once, it sometimes happens we get married at last."

But instead of becoming a kept woman, Gigi finds true love. "Gigi" would go on to win nine Academy Awards -- and Leslie Caron was a bona fide movie star.

But she no longer lived in Hollywood, followed her husband Peter Hall, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to London, and had started a family.

On CBS' "Person to Person" with Charles Collingwood in 1959, she said, "My roots are wherever my husband and children are, really."

"In your life, you didn't choose older men," said Pauley.


"I chose talented men, good looking, talented men," Caron said. "Peter Hall, my husband, wonderfully talented with a great future. He had the capacity of being a great man of the theater, I could see that."

"What do you think attracted him to you? Because he buried the things that we most loved about you: The stage, the dance, the film ..."

"I forgive him," said Caron, "because it was, you know, his background. In his milieu, women stayed in the home and sent off the children to school. And that's what he expected of a wife."

"Don't you wish you could have a chance to do it again right now?"

"Yes. Yes, I would say, 'Now, look here!'" she laughed. "Different times, and it took women a very long time to say, 'Look here, I'm me, I exist. My life has to be fulfilled, too.'"

"In those days, would an actress imagine being the age of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and still having roles?"

"No way. Forty, and the door was closed," she said.

But today, doors seem to be opening for eighty-something stars. "I think it's the English who changed everything with the Maggie Smiths and the Judy Denches, those wonderful actresses," said Caron. "Suddenly the public said, 'Hey, wait a minute. I prefer looking at those ladies who have experience and wit and wisdom.'"

"Why can't you be one of those?"

"I AM going to be!" Caron laughed.

In fact, in 2007 she earned an Emmy for her guest appearance as a rape victim on "Law and Order: SVU."

In her 2010 memoir, "Thank Heaven," Caron wrote, "The best part of my life is over."

But she took issue with that: "No, no, no, no."