7 Jun 2013

Actress Esther Williams dies

6:04 am on 7 June 2013

Esther Williams, one of the biggest box-office stars of the 1940s and 1950s, has died at the age of 91.

The US swimming champion turned movie star had been in declining health due to old age. She died peacefully in her sleep on Thursday in Beverly Hills, California, her spokesman said.

Williams became known as "Hollywood's Mermaid" and "The Queen of the Surf."

Her experiences as a young swimming champion led to a career of Hollywood "aqua-musicals" designed just for her, Reuters reports.

At her peak, the actress was second in earnings only to Betty Grable and often in the top 10 box-office draws.

The "aqua-musicals" were escapist comedies in lush color, with lavish song and watery dance numbers and lots of footage of synchronized swimming. They were so popular that some credited her with a jump in the popularity of home swimming pools.

A typical finale featured Williams diving into a pool or lagoon and surfacing to a crescendo of music with waterdrops glistening on her smiling face and sleek body.

Her string of successful films included Thrill of a Romance, Fiesta, On an Island With You and Duchess of Idaho.

Williams dismissed her talent, saying "I can't act, I can't sing, I can't dance. My pictures are put together out of scraps they find in the producer's wastebasket."

After watching the films decades later, she softened that self-deprecating assessment, saying: "I look at that girl and I like her. I can see why she became popular with audiences. There was an unassuming quality about her. She was certainly wholesome."

Williams was born in the Los Angeles suburb of Inglewood on 8 August 1921. As a young swimmer, she set what were then world records in the 100-metre freestyle and 880-yard relay. She also worked as a model.

In her later career, Williams did a few 1960s television specials and hosted swimming events for ABC-TV's coverage of the 1984 Olympic Games.