The national swimming champ who went on to star in more than two dozen MGM “aquamusicals” of the 1940s and ’50s died today in her sleep in Beverly Hills. She was 91. A native of LA-adjacent Inglewood, Esther Williams was a record-breaking swimmer in her teens and planned to compete in the 1940 Olympics, which ultimately were derailed by World War II. She landed a role in the music, dance and swimming show Aquacade, paired with Olympic gold medalist and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. There she caught the attention of MGM scouts, and Williams was signed to a film contract not long after the Aquacade closed in September 1940. After taking several months to learn the ropes and making a couple of short films, Williams’ first feature role was in the Mickey Rooney starrer Andy Hardy’s Double Life (1942). Her first star turn came in 1944’s Bathing Beauty, opposite Red Skelton and Basil Rathbone. Her next film, the musical Thrill Of The Romance, was among the top 10 biggest pics of 1945, and Williams was a full-fledged star. Several other hits followed, and from 1945-49 at least one of her films ranked among the 20 highest-grossing movies of the year. One of her biggest hits was Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), which among the many MGM musicals to feature elaborately staged signature pool routines that featured synchronized swimming. She left MGM in 1956 and made a series of less-successful films before retiring from show business in the mid-’60s. With her movie career over, Williams turned her attention to swimming-related business ventures. Inspired by the MGM aquamusicals, synchronized swimming became a competitive sport, ultimately becoming an Olympic event starting — appropriately — with the 1984 Los Angeles games. Williams served as a TV commentator on the event. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1966.
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