'Astaire Could Wear a Top Hat, White Tie and Tails.But I Danced like a Tough Street Kid'; GENIUS OF GENE KELLY, A MAN WHO WANTED TO BE A PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL PLAYER AND SETTLED FOR HAVING THE WORLD AT HIS FEET

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Byline: DAVID LEWIN

I ONCE asked Gene Kelly to describe the difference between himself and Fred Astaire, the two dancing giants of genius of our age.

He said simply: `Fred's style was cool, easy, intimate, aristocratic.

Mine was strong, wide-open, bravura and working class.

`Fred could wear top hat, white tie and tails. I wore a sweat shirt and jeans. I could never play a prince or a rich man. So I danced like a tough street kid: not the officer, but the longshoreman.'

That was Gene Kelly who died last night. He was 83. It had been years since he danced professionally. `It is a young man's game,' he said. `By the time your body knows how, it is usually too late.'

It wasn't too late for Gene Kelly, the son of a travelling salesman who started to dance at 14 for a very simple reason: `I was shy with the girls at school until I found that they liked the fellows who could dance. It was the only way, then, to get your arm round a girl's waist without getting your face slapped.'

What he had in mind then was not to become a dancing legend, but a short stop for the Pittsburg Braves, a baseball team. Or at least to go to university and take a degree. That he accomplished too - helping to pay for the course by teaching a dance class at the local synagogue.

`I'm the only hoofer in the world who majored in economics,' he could boast later.

But it was his dancing feet, his wide and easy Irish grin and his strong body that led him inevitably to the stage. And then Hollywood. It wasn't easy, of course. `I pumped gas and I dug ditches during the Thirties depression,' he told me. `But the real money was in my feet - not my hands or my head.'

He appeared in local shows, then on tour and finally Hollywood offered him a contract.

He made Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris. He starred in Cover Girl and That's Dancing. His partners included Judy Garland and Cyd Charisse and Rita Hayworth. And of course Fred Astaire, who called him simply `One Great Guy'.

There was never any jealousy or animosity between the two men, who were so very different in style but who both made it seem so very easy.

`There was a big difference between us, though,' Gene Kelly told me one day. `I sweat when I dance. Fred never did - or if he did, it never showed.'

The other difference I noticed was this: women who watched their movies wanted to be swept off their feet by Astaire. They wanted to be carried off by Gene. Either way, it worked.

But he made a strange confession to me once. `At the beginning, and even in those early films of mine, it was all a case of male-ego. I'd do a buck and wing and the girls would think it was nifty, although the truth was that I wasn't so keen on it. I preferred to create a dance routine, rather than actually do it. There was no inner impulse.'

The inner impulse came from his three marriages and his three children, a son Timothy and two daughters, Bridget and Kerry.

His first wife was the dancer and actress Betsy Blair and their marriage lasted 16 years until they were divorced. Then he met Jeanne Coyne, a non-dancer and they were married until she died tragically of leukaemia in 1973.

Gene Kelly stopped work for nearly 20 years to stay at home with his children, returning to the screen in 1980 with Olivia Newton John in Xanadu.

Then in 1990 he married again - to a TV writer, Patricia Ward, who was nearly 50 years his junior.

He would watch his old movies on television and think, `Oh, God - I could jump over the moon then. …