Gene Nelson was born Leander Eugene Berg in Astoria, Oregon on March 24, 1920.
His family moved to Seattle when he was one, and from there to Santa Monica where he grew up surrounded by show business. He was 13 when he saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers make their big screen debut in Flying Down To Rio and suddenly knew what he had been born to do. His father (a machinist) was a gifted athlete, and had already taught him basic gymnastics. Leander studied tap at Fanchon and Marco, Rita Hayworth’s father’s dance studio, where fellow tap classmates included Ann Miller and Judy Garland. He was discovered while dancing in a school performance.
By the time he was appearing in movies, he had changed his name.
Huge, relaxed and handsome, Gene Nelson radiated an onscreen emotional well being that his scrawny, slightly mournful, self mocking idol, Fred Astaire, never had. However Fred did have something Gene never came close to acquiring: star quality.
Despite this crucial lack, Gene Nelson was insanely gifted.
Check out his jump from the floor to the top of the piano - near the end of the above clip. Next time you are near a piano, give it a try.
Warner Brothers wanted Gene to be Fred just as badly as he did. They paired him with Doris Day, hoping for magic. The American public said no dice. Disappointed, Nelson moved into directing. You may be more familiar with his work than you think, because he was busy nonstop in television from 1961 to 1979, directing entire seasons of Rawhide, The Donna Reed Show, I Dream Of Jeannie, The F.B.I, several years of Mod Squad and one episode of the original Star Trek.
He also directed Elvis on the big screen in Kissin’ Cousins in 1964 and Harum Scarum in 1965.
Gene Nelson was nominated for a Tony for his performance as Buddy in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies in 1972.
He died in Los Angeles on September 16, 1996.