Mary Frances Reynolds wanted to be a gym teacher. She grew up a ball-playing, tree-climbing tomboy from a church-going family in Burbank, Calif. A chance decision to enter a local beauty contest at age 16 and the surprising victory that ensued led to a contract with Warner Brothers, a name change (to Debbie, although she said in an early interview that she would have preferred “Patches” or “Saucy”) and a long on-screen career, for which she was honored last year with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
Reynolds, who died Wednesday at 84, just one day after her daughter Carrie Fisher died following a heart attack, did not grow up singing, dancing or acting. But once she entered show business she worked tirelessly to develop those talents. Beginning with her brief stint at Warner Bros. as a teenager, she regularly put in 10-hour days honing all three. She appeared in one musical film with the studio (The Daughter of Rosy O’Grady in 1950), then got picked up by MGM after playing Helen Kane (the “Boop Boop a Doop” girl) across from Fred Astaire in Three Little Words.
But her breakout role would come in 1952, when she played aspiring actress Kathy Selden opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor in Singin’ in the Rain. That movie catapulted Reynolds, who could barely dance a step when she first met Kelly on set, to stardom. She went on to make movies like Tammy and the Bachelor, in 1957, which gave her a No. 1 hit on the Billboard charts, How the West Was Won in 1962 with Gregory Peck and The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 1964, for which she received an Oscar nod.
As much as her work kept her in the spotlight, Reynolds also received unwanted attention for a scandal in her personal life, though not of her own making. In a love triangle that provided as much tabloid fodder as the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie drama of the early aughts, Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher, Carrie's father, divorced her in 1959 and immediately married her close friend Elizabeth Taylor. Reynolds has said that she was to Taylor as Aniston was to Jolie: the all-American girl next door spurned by the hypersexualized bombshell.
"I stood no chance against her,” she once said. “What chance did I have against Elizabeth, a woman of great womanly experience, when I had no experience at all?"
LIFE Magazine described her that year as “Eddie’s scorned woman,” but emphasized that she was “not one to retreat behind dark glasses.” Outwardly, she was, despite her painful personal drama, “full of fun and bouncy as a kitten on a living room rug.” And though she was at that time a decade into her career, the magazine described her with as much innocence as it might have described that boyish teenager: “Debbie is a homespun girl and she loves Coke, chewing gum and popcorn.”
The Lifetime Achievement Award she received in 2015 offered overdue recognition for a performer with a closet full of nominations — for an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and two Golden Globes — but no major wins. Reynolds’ career counted dozens of film projects, including voice-over work (most notably, as Charlotte in Charlotte’s Web), as well as turns on Broadway and television. She continued to work in the years preceding her death, with her most notable recent role as Liberace's mother in the 2013 HBO movie Behind the Candelabra.
It all amounted to quite a collection of stripes on the sleeves of a woman whose entire career began by accident. “I'm very proud to say I was Miss Burbank and had a hole in my bathing suit and my rear end was hanging out and I didn't have shoes, high-heel shoes,” she said in an interview in 2013. “I'm very grateful for stumbling into show business.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the photo editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.