May 24, 1976 12:00 PM

Astaire (as in debonaire) is back. What’s more, he’s dancing again. But if the first public steps in eight years by the most graceful 77-year-old bones in showbiz upstage his old film clips in MGM’s sequel-to-a-sequel, That’s Entertainment, Part 2, Fred isn’t admitting it. “Gene and I didn’t dance,” he protests. “We did half a minute here, half a minute there. Dancing is a whole other thing, sweetie.”

Maybe so. Gene Kelly doesn’t look like Ginger Rogers either. But with Astaire and Kelly merging their talents as co-hosts of TE II the two soft-shoeshine boys dance off with the picture. “We were acting like a couple of 14-year-olds,” admits Kelly, who adds glowingly of Astaire, “He’s a phenomenon.”

The biggest surprise was persuading the reticent Astaire to come before the cameras again. He lives in solitary splendor in “just a bachelor house,” an imposing three-acre estate in Beverly Hills. It is only a few blocks from the one he shared for 22 years with his wife, Phyllis, who died of cancer in 1954. His mother, Anna Austerlitz, used to occupy one wing of the tawny marble house, but she died last year at the age of 96. “It still seems as if she’s everywhere,” Astaire muses sadly.

Still casually elegant in his tailored blue suit with handkerchief, tasseled pumps (he admits to owning “20 or 30 pairs”) and neatly brushed gray toupee, Astaire now keeps company with his servants, his dog Alison and mementos of a career that spans most of this century. On the wall is a framed letter addressed simply to: “Fred Astaire, U.S.A.” Over the fireplace is a painting of Triplicate, his most successful Thoroughbred, who won more than $250,000 wearing the family silks before being retired to stud in 1949. On a bookcase are nine Emmys from his 1958 TV special and the special Oscar he won in 1949. There are pictures of friends—Niven, Coward, Porter, Gershwin—and paintings by Irving Berlin.

The tables are crammed with family photographs: his sister Adele, 78, who left Omaha with Fred and their mother in 1905 to begin the Astaires’ dancing career (she retired to Phoenix and now keeps in touch with Fred by telephone); his son Fred Jr., 41, a northern California rancher; his daughter Ava, 33, who lives in Ireland with her artist husband; and his stepson Peter Potter, a sheriff in Montecito, Calif. “I can’t keep track of the grandchildren,” Astaire laughs. (All eight are regular visitors.)

Rising daily at 6 a.m., Astaire listens to radio news and eats a light breakfast. As slim and supple as ever, he attributes his good health “to not overeating. I never could eat a lot because of all that hoofing I had to do.” Now, Fred adds, “I exercise not at all. I don’t like physical torture.” Instead, his vices are TV sports and soap operas (“a recent addiction”) and an occasional bourbon old-fashioned. (He gave up smoking 10 years ago.)

Astaire’s longtime chauffeur died two years ago, and the black Rolls-Royce in the curving driveway is rarely taken out. “I usually hire a car,” he explains. “I don’t like driving on the freeways. You never know what sort of freak you’re going to run into, stoned up to his ears.” Occasionally, Astaire will go to matinees at a local movie theater or to the racetrack with cronies like Walter Matthau and John Forsythe. He still owns a brood mare and two fillies. “I’ll stay to see the race my horse is in,” he says, “and then go home. I don’t like doing the whole day.”

The continuing popularity of his movies leaves Astaire bemused. “There are seven books out on me now,” he wonders. “There’s a big red one, a big yellow one and a white one. There’s nothing I can do about it.” In fact, he rarely watches his own movies on TV (the mistakes still bother his perfectionist soul) and he insists that the dancing that charmed the world “is something I’m not even interested in now.”

What he really yearns for is another dramatic role (he won an Oscar nomination for Towering Inferno). “I don’t know why people think you can keep on dancing,” he sighs. “It’s hard labor. A ballplayer is old at 35. You can’t go on. I once made a rule I would never repeat anything I did. But if I were in a musical and didn’t dance, people would have a fit. They’re just unreasonable.”

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