Nick White and Gia Kourlas
August 22, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

”One of my favorite things in the universe has been, whenever you mention his name, people smile,” says actress Lori Petty of close friend dancer-actor Gregory Hines, who died of cancer Aug. 9 at 57.

From the way his shoes skimmed the surface of the stage in his regal, unaffected tap performances to his recurring role on Will & Grace, Hines’ career was marked with the same good humor and nobility of another luminary: Fred Astaire. ”There was something just so special about him,” says director Bill Condon. ”It was really like he walked on air.”

Hines boldly resurrected tap in the ’80s when the art form had long lost its luster. Born in New York City, he began studying dance before he was 3. In 1979, he was nominated for his first Tony Award for the musical Eubie!; he garnered additional nominations for Comin’ Uptown (1980) and Sophisticated Ladies (1981) and, in 1992, won for best actor in a musical for his intense portrayal of Jelly Roll Morton in Jelly’s Last Jam. His movie career was less successful, but just as daring; there were The Cotton Club (1984), White Nights (1985), opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Tap (1989).

To his many loved ones, Hines’ death is devastating, and all the more shocking because very few knew he was ill. Explains friend Penny Marshall, ”He did things his way.” Gia Kourlas, with reporting by Nick White




1981 Took on first film role as a Roman slave in Mel Brooks’ History of the World: Part I.

1988 Successfully lobbied for the creation of National Tap Dance Day (May 25).

1997 Had his own sitcom on CBS: The Gregory Hines Show.

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