Kerry Kelly Novick was raised by one of the most iconic stars from Hollywood’s golden era – but she insisted her childhood was “ordinary.”
Gene Kelly, the beloved song-and-dance man who starred in films like “Singin’ in the Rain,” “On the Town,” “Anchors Aweigh” and “An American in Paris,” passed away in 1996 at age 83. The actor appeared in 45 films and his successful career in Hollywood spanned a half-century. Today, he is still revered as a pioneer in dance on film.
Kelly Novick didn’t follow in her father’s footsteps but she carved out a career for herself that celebrates his love of family. She is a child, adolescent and adult psychoanalyst with over 55 years of experience, as well as an author. She and her husband recently teamed up to write “Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children,” which she said is geared towards “parents, grandparents and teachers.”
Kelly Novick spoke to Fox News about what it was like growing up with the late star, his early years in the Navy, as well as how he felt about Hollywood.
Fox News: When did you first realize that your father was different from other dads?
Kerry Kelly Novick: Well, one thing about growing up in Beverly Hills is that almost everybody’s father or mother was in show business. So it wasn’t so different.
I think it was more of a realization that for the rest of the world, everybody’s parents weren’t famous. But because it was so ordinary where I grew up, it didn’t feel different. And my father was ordinary, too. He and I would go get bagels and then head to the hardware store. My mom and I would go to the public library. So our lives were very ordinary.
Fox News: What was it like growing up with Gene Kelly?
Kelly Novick: He was a very devoted, available and present dad with me and my siblings. And he was fun and active. He was very much involved in our schoolwork. But he also loved playing games with us.
Fox News: What’s a favorite memory you have of your father?
Kelly Novick: There are certainly many. But one that always comes to mind is from the time that I was very small. I was probably four or five. We had a habit. Every time he was home early after supper, he would sit in his big red leather chair in the den and he would pick something for us to read from the encyclopedia. That’s actually how I learned to read. We all enjoyed learning new things and he made it fun for us.
Fox News: Your father enlisted in the Navy. How much of an impact did that experience have on him?
Kelly Novick: He enlisted in the Navy because his number was up. And then he went to boot camp in San Diego. After that, he boxed and went through basic training. They assigned him to the film unit that made training films for the Navy. Then he proceeded until the end of the war to make training films, like how to assemble and disassemble your rifle and things like that.
The most significant training film he made is one called “Combat Fatigue Irritability.” That’s a short film that he directed and partially wrote. And it talks about what was then known as “combat fatigue irritability,” which was called “shell shock” earlier. Nowadays, it’s PTSD. It dealt with the impact of combat experiences on soldiers and sailors. It also looked at the different kinds of treatments they received. It was a really powerful movie for its time that can now be found at the National Library of Medicine, along with John Fords’s which were similar.
Fox News: It seems like mental health wasn’t something that was discussed or understood as it is today.
Kelly Novick: I think it was in some circles. My parents were intellectuals and very avant-garde. So they were aware of mental health issues. My father used to go to veteran’s hospitals to entertain the young men who were in recovery. I think everybody was very conscious of mental health needs. And I felt my father’s film was very fascinating, especially for me since I’m a mental health professional.
Fox News: What was your father’s relationship like with the other servicemen?
Kelly Novick: It was excellent. My father grew up in a modest family in Pittsburgh in a working-class neighborhood. He always saw himself as a regular person. I think he got on very well with everybody in the service. He also lost his very best friends in combat, so it was always an important cause to him.
Fox News: What are some fun facts about Gene Kelly that would surprise fans today?
Kelly Novick: His college degree was in economics. He minored in political science and had an abiding interest in American history and politics. In the public, he’s seen as a carefree, athletic dancer. But in private he was such an intellectual who was always curious and read all the time.
Fox News: It sounds like your parents weren’t the “movie star” type.
Kelly Novick: They were both dancers, but they were also hard workers. They were like professional athletes so they didn’t have the luxury of just lolling around. They were brought up by hard-working families where everyone worked and had a role. My father was part of supporting his family from when he was in college. His family ran two dancing schools in Pennsylvania. After the Depression, my grandfather lost his job. And the dancing schools supported the family. My mother’s mother was a school teacher who also took care of the family.
They achieved success in Hollywood, but my father always knew that he was going to lead his own kind of life. So when I came along, they didn’t want me to be some sort of rich kid. I had chores and a small allowance. We were a very different Hollywood family. On the weekends, my parents held activities like volleyball, baseball, softball and ping-pong. At night, they were playing charades and singing songs around the piano.
On Sunday nights, they usually showed a movie in the living room with a 16-millimeter projector. I was about 11 when I learned how to run the projector and I was very proud of that. They valued the importance of hard work, but they also valued the importance of family. Our house was filled with all sorts of creative people, but they were also good friends who were having a wonderful time with us.
Fox News: Did your father ever teach you to dance?
Kelly Novick: *Laughs*. He offered to teach me. I had one lesson and then he said I had to practice every day or else he wouldn’t continue the lessons. I didn’t practice. So he didn’t continue the lessons. That reflected in his work ethic.
Fox News: Is it true that Judy Garland was a family friend?
Kelly Novick: She was. She and my dad were very close friends. I think he was always extremely grateful to Judy. She was already established in movies when he was brought to Hollywood. He always said that she was the one who taught him how to act in movies. She taught him the importance of making small gestures to convey a feeling and using facial expressions in a more nuanced way. She was welcoming and kind to him. He never forgot that. They were always singing and dancing together. They remained friends until she died. So Judy and her family were very much a part of my childhood.
Fox News: What were your father’s later years like?
Kelly Novick: There was a career change. The studio system began to change so he started doing more directing and cameo appearances. My step-mother died young, leaving my brother and sister at the ages of nine and seven. At that point, my dad made a decision not to do any more films on location. If he couldn’t bring the kids, he wouldn’t do it.
By that time, I was grown up and living in England. He was functioning as a single parent and made the professional decision to stay home and care for my siblings. So his later years were of devotion. He looked after my brother and sister and they were very much a priority. But he was also a mentor to many young artists. People would always seek him out for career advice and probably personal advice like Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson. He was thrilled to do it.
Fox News: You’ve been working with children and families for a long time. How did your upbringing inspire you to pursue this role, as opposed to working in Hollywood?
Kelly Novick: I was always interested in taking care of kids. I used to babysit a lot as a kid. I briefly worked in designing sets and being a costume supervisor after college. But I then went back to school and trained to be a child psychoanalyst with Anna Freud in London.
It was a continuous thread. My father was always very interested in children. He was a teacher and one of my grandmothers was a teacher. There was a strong tradition in the family of being attentive to the needs of children. There were scenes with children in almost every one of my father’s films. He was proud of me. He had a lot of confidence in me and knew this was also important to me. He would say, “I trust your choice. If this is what you want to do, go for it.”
Fox News: What’s life like for you today?
Kelly Novick: It’s terrific. I have three kids and nine grandchildren. I’m still very active in my career. My husband and I write books together. We’re both psychoanalysts so we do a lot of teaching. I’m 79 and I’m healthy, happy and busy.
Fox News: Before your father’s passing, how did he feel about Hollywood?
Kelly Novick: He was very proud of his career. He was also grateful that people continued to value his work, especially towards the end of his life. At one point, he told me, “I just want to make people happy.” I think he succeeded. His films teach us the joy of creative expression. It’s not entirely plausible for people to walk down the street and suddenly burst into song and dance. But the idea that this lives inside of us is, I think, a powerful reason why we still love his films.