Esther Williams, the swimming champion turned actress who starred in glittering and aquatic Technicolor musicals of the 1940s and '50s, has died. She was 91.
Williams died early Thursday in her sleep, according to her longtime publicist Harlan Boll.
Following in the footsteps of Sonja Henie, who went from ice-skating champion to movie star, Williams became one of Hollywood's biggest moneymakers, appearing in spectacular swimsuit numbers that capitalized on her wholesome beauty and perfect figure.
Such films as "Easy to Wed," "Neptune's Daughter" and "Dangerous When Wet" followed the same formula: romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Esther into the water.
The extravaganzas dazzled a second generation via television and the compilation films "That's Entertainment." Williams' co-stars included the pick of the MGM contract list, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel.
When hard times signaled the end of big studios and costly musicals in the mid-'50s, Williams tried non-swimming roles with little success. After her 1962 marriage to Fernando Lamas, her co-star in "Dangerous When Wet," she retired from public life.
Williams came to films after winning 100-meter freestyle and other races at the 1939 national championships and appearing at the San Francisco World's Fair's swimming exhibition.
As with Judy Garland, Donna Reed and other stars, Williams was introduced in one of Mickey Rooney's Andy Hardy films, "Andy Hardy's Double Life" (1942).
"Bathing Beauty" in 1944 began the string of immensely popular musical spectaculars, including "Thrill of a Romance," "Fiesta" and "Dangerous When Wet."
Williams in a bathing suit became a favorite pinup of GIs in World War II, and her popularity continued afterward.
Esther Jane Williams was born Aug. 8, 1921, in Inglewood, a suburb southwest of Los Angeles, one of five children.
An older sister taught her to swim at a public pool near their home. They saved the 10-cent admission fee by counting out 100 towels.
When she was in her teens, the Los Angeles Athletic Club offered to train her for the 1940 Olympic Games at Helsinki. But the outbreak of war in Europe that year canceled the 1940 Games, and Esther dropped out of competition to earn a living.
She was selling clothes in a department store when showman Billy Rose tapped her for a bathing beauty job at the World's Fair in San Francisco.
While there, she was spotted by an MGM producer and an agent. She laughed at the suggestion she do films that would popularize swimming, as Henie had done with ice skating.