Esther Williams, the competitive swimmer who became a famous actress in the 1940s and 1950s, died Thursday in California. Longtime publicist Harlan Boll announced she’d died in her sleep. She was 91.
During her heyday, Williams was one of Hollywood’s biggest moneymakers, appearing in spectacular musicals that featured her wholesome beauty, stunning figure and, of course, her swimming abilities. Williams’ co-stars included the biggest names on MGM’s contract list, including Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban and Howard Keel. As USA Today noted, her movies followed a specific formula: “romance, music, a bit of comedy and a flimsy plot that provided excuses to get Esther into the water.”
When big movie musicals went out of vogue in the mid-1950s, Williams tried her hand at some legit acting (a.k.a. non-swimming roles). Sadly, they didn’t prove successful. She eventually retired from acting in 1962, devoting herself to her husband, actor Fernando Lamas, who was Williams’ co-star in Dangerous When Wet.