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Protecting the legend of Fred Astaire

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Eleven years after he died, Fred Astaire's widow says she is still struggling to protect and administer the image of the great entertainer.

"I'm doing exactly what Fred wanted me to do. But I don't think even he anticipated how difficult it would be," Robyn Astaire said.Her crusade has generated a torrent of criticism from those who call her wrongheaded and money-grubbing.

Robyn Astaire recently talked about her seven-year marriage to Astaire and her life since his death.

"Fred knew that people would try to use him without permission, because they did during his lifetime. He was very protective of his persona," she said in her office overlooking Santa Monica Airport, where she keeps two planes and flies passengers on chartered jets.

"It was unbelievable after he died. Everyone wanted a piece of him for themselves. It's been financially draining (to pursue lawsuits). I have prevailed in all cases except this last one, which was the most important. It didn't just involve Fred; it involved all actors, all artists."

She enlisted Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Tom Cruise, John Travolta and other stars as "friends of the court."

She initiated a lawsuit because dance clips of Astaire were used in an instructional video for the Fred Astaire dance studios. She won the case, but the decision was reversed by a federal appeals judge.

In February, 9th Circuit appeals judges voted 2-to-1 to uphold the reversal, saying Astaire granted the studios use of his name in perpetuity and the film clips, from "Second Chorus" and "Royal Wedding," were in public domain.

Robyn Astaire is considering a further appeal and said she hopes there will eventually be state legislation to protect famous personalities, living and dead.

Her stewardship has resulted in dozens of legal feuds and a couple of very public decisions.

In 1992, she refused to allow dance clips of Astaire and Ginger Rogers to be used on the Kennedy Center Honors telecast saluting Miss Rogers, causing complaints from columnists and others. Despite the furor that her refusal caused, Robyn Astaire said that she and Miss Rogers were pals and remained friends after the tribute.

Robyn Astaire said she was willing to grant permission for them to use the film clips, but she balked at a demand that she release them on television in perpetuity. "Fred would never have allowed anyone to have them in perpetuity," she said.

More recently, Robyn Astaire has taken knocks from critics who claim Astaire's dance with a vacuum cleaner in a TV commercial for Dirt Devil is undignified.

"I wish everyone would lighten up," she says. "Fred had a great sense of humor. Fred did `Battlestar Gallactica' in a space suit with turned-up-toes shoes; he did it for his grandchildren. Fred danced with mops and brooms ... during his lifetime. He definitely would have done it."

Besides, after so many years of litigation, she needed the money to carry on. "I have turned down millions of dollars' worth of endorsements," she explained. "I finally decided to do this."

Suing is not her only activity. After Astaire died in 1987, she was at loose ends.

The former jockey no longer had her horses. In a 1989 interview with The Associated Press, she said Astaire wanted her to leave racing because it was dangerous. "I was ready to quit anyway. But I made Fred sell his horses because I wasn't about to let him run them if I could ride," she said.