By David Hutchings
May 14, 1984 12:00 PM

As everybody’s favorite movie pixie of the 1950s, Leslie Caron danced with Fred Astaire in Daddy Long Legs and sang with Maurice Chevalier in Gigi. But even gamines grow up, and Caron did so gracefully. Now 52, she has limbered up her still sensational legs to star in the road company of On Your Toes. “I usually turn down things from America because I don’t like what I’m offered,” says Caron. But for the ballet-trained, Paris-based actress, the chance to dance again was both a challenge and a coup. “I adored the dramatic part of the character,” she says of the snooty, Russian prima ballerina she portrays. “I wouldn’t dare behave like this in real life. I am the absolute opposite of her. I am not particularly flamboyant nor am I capricious.” She has, so to speak, big slippers to step into—Natalia Makarova won a Tony last year in the Broadway production.

Caron, who last toured the U.S. in CanCan in 1977, plunged into the part with a vengeance. First, she demanded and got six weeks rehearsal time. “I didn’t want the public to make allowances for my age or the fact that I hadn’t done any ballet in 30 years,” she says. She also consulted her doctors “to see if my heart would hold out” and her acupuncturist to help relieve a nagging hip pain. Among her concessions were giving up wine and the dainty cigars she enjoys at dinner. Still, the preparation almost went for naught. Ten days before the show was to open in Miami on March 21, Leslie busted a rib in rehearsal. “I could hear the crack,” she recalls. “It was like my cat crunching a bird bone.” Makarova alternated with her until she was able to resume the role full-time.

The daughter of a French chemist and an American dancer mother, Madame Caron has frequented the altar as well as the stage. Her marriage to meat-packing heir George Hormel II ended in 1954 after almost three years. In 1956 she wed Sir Peter Hall, director of Britain’s National Theatre, with whom she has two children: Jennifer, 25, and Christopher, 27. (Caron’s touring schedule precluded her presence at Jennifer’s wedding in England last month.) Her divorce from Hall in 1965 drew attention when Warren Beatty was named corespondent in the suit. According to Caron, she and Beatty never intended to wed. “Warren Beatty only wants to marry his next Academy Award,” she says with a laugh. “The man really is a megalomaniac.” A third marriage, to producer Michael Laughlin, ended in 1977.

For the past four years she has lived with Australian lawyer Roger Vincent, who is 10 years her junior. He operates an antiques store in Paris, and they spend weekends at her mill in Burgundy. Marriage seems unlikely. “What would it prove?” she asks. Her cozy, comfortable life-style is far removed from her Hollywood glory days, when she found it “nerve-rattling going to parties.” Admits Leslie, “I’ve never liked actors much. They’re so self-absorbed.” Rare kudos are reserved for Fred Astaire, whom she calls “the best white dancer there is,” and Gene Kelly, who discovered her in a Paris ballet troupe at 16. Generally, though, she prefers the company of writers, and a collection of her short stories was published to favorable reviews in 1982.

Ironically only Caron’s own countrymen have failed to accept her as a serious actress. “My films are forever shown, but the French still think I’m a child,” she complains. “I’m yet to be discovered there.” Never one to live in the past, Caron has no copies of any of her films and remains “totally detached” when she sees one. Gigi is her favorite role, though Caron says her studio dubbing was lousy.

But that was then and this is now, which is where she prefers to be. Says Caron, “I think it’s the end of progress if you stand still and think of what you’ve done in the past.” Like her beloved Gigi, she finds solace in forging ahead: “I keep on.”