Carleton Carpenter, actor and singer who made his name alongside Debbie Reynolds – obituary

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Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter in Two Weeks With Love - De Carvalho Collection
Debbie Reynolds and Carleton Carpenter in Two Weeks With Love - De Carvalho Collection

Carleton Carpenter, who has died aged 95, was best known for singing Row, Row, Row and Aba Daba Honeymoon in the 1950 Debbie Reynolds vehicle Two Weeks With Love. The latter went to No 3 in the US charts and sold a million copies – and was one of the first songs from a musical to earn a gold disc. As Carpenter liked to put it, “Debbie and I made history.”

Carleton Upham Carpenter Jnr was born on July 10 1926 at Bennington, Vermont, and left school to serve as a Seabee (a member of the Naval Construction Battalion). He helped to build the airstrip on Tinian Island from which Enola Gay departed to bomb Hiroshima.

“I had no idea what a Seabee was,” recalled Carpenter, who came out as gay in the 1970s. “There I met a young guy called Costello. I had feelings for him but didn’t understand what they were. Ultimately he was my first love, but at the time I couldn’t comprehend what it was. I was so naïve.”

Back home he enrolled at Northwestern University in Illinois, specialising in theatre arts and finding work as a clown at carnivals. “I wore stilts,” he said. “It taught me balance and bravery.”

He appeared on Broadway in the play Bright Boy, followed by Career Angel and Three to Make Ready. “I thought the sidewalks were paved with gold – the usual green stuff,” he said.

Carpenter made his film debut in the controversial Lost Boundaries (1949), based on the true story of a black doctor (played by Mel Ferrer) who passes for white in a New England town.

With the eponymous big cat in Fearless Fagan (1952): 'Off-camera the props man was waiting in the wings with a loaded rifle,' he recalled - Archive Photos
With the eponymous big cat in Fearless Fagan (1952): 'Off-camera the props man was waiting in the wings with a loaded rifle,' he recalled - Archive Photos

The following year he signed for MGM; his first role was as a handyman who fixes Judy Garland’s tractor in Summer Stock (1950). They became great friends, he recalled: “I played the piano and we’d just jam together.”

But he was uncomplimentary about her co-star Gene Kelly: “He had a huge ego and was mean to me, doing all he could to keep me off camera. He had a complex about his height [Carpenter was 6ft 3in]... He smiled at me all the time but he had a knife in my back.”

Carpenter played an usher in Father of the Bride – “I got to walk Joan Bennett down the aisle!” – and then sang I Want to be Loved by You with Debbie Reynolds in the musical Three Little Words before playing a ranch hand in the Burt Lancaster Western Vengeance Valley.

With Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher at the circus in 1960 - Bettmann
With Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher at the circus in 1960 - Bettmann

He then landed a starring role opposite Janet Leigh in the Stanley Donen comedy Fearless Fagan (1952), in which he played a clown called up for military service who tries to take along his eponymous pet lion.

“Janet Leigh wasn’t impressed one bit,” Carpenter recalled. “The poor old thing was more of a pussycat, though when I had a scene rolling around with him the costume department made sure I was well padded. I still got a few nips, though, and just in case, off-camera the props man was waiting in the wings with a loaded rifle.”

He played a rodeo cowboy in the slight romance Sky Full of Moon (1952), then made his final film for MGM, the Korean War drama Take the High Ground! (1953), with Richard Widmark, before concentrating on stage, television and radio work. During the Vietnam War, he and Mary Martin took Hello, Dolly! to the front.

With Janet Leigh in Fearless Fagan - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
With Janet Leigh in Fearless Fagan - Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Carpenter was also a songwriter, penning such songs as Christmas Eve, which was recorded by Billy Eckstine. He also wrote material for Marlene Dietrich and Kaye Ballard as well as several scripts for television shows.

In the 1970s Carpenter returned to Broadway for The Greatest Story Ever Told and Roberta. He retired to Long Island, where he wrote paperback mysteries including Deadline, which in the 1980s was turned into a Broadway musical.

Carleton Carpenter’s memoir The Absolute Joy of Work was published in 2012.

Carleton Carpenter, born July 10 1926, died January 31 2022

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