By CNN Staff
(CNN) — Esther Williams, whose success as a competitive swimmer propelled her to stardom on the silver screen in the 1940s and 1950s, died Thursday in California, her spokesman said.
Williams, known for films that featured synchronized swimming spectacles, was 91.
She grew up in Southern California and was a U.S. swimming champion in freestyle and the breaststroke by her late teens. But her Olympic dreams ended in 1940, when the Summer Games were canceled because of World War II.
“That’s one of my sad moments in my life,” Williams told CNN’s Larry King in November 1999. “It taught me how to live with a sad moment.”
Her fortunes turned around quickly.
After an audition, she starred opposite Olympian and film star Johnny Weissmuller in the “San Francisco Aquacade Review,” a “Broadway musical in swimsuits,” her online biography reads.
MGM then signed her, and she made her movie debut alongside Mickey Rooney in the 1942 film “Andy Hardy’s Double Life.”
“They did a sequence where I swam with Mickey, underwater kiss, which was my idea,” Williams told King. “They didn’t think you could kiss anybody underwater without drowning.”
Williams went on to appear in more than 20 films through the 1950s, including “Bathing Beauty,” “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Million Dollar Mermaid,” taking many roles that featured her as a swimmer.
She was a 1966 honoree of the Florida-based International Swimming Hall of Fame.
“Her movie career played a major role in the promotion of swimming, making it attractive to the public, contributing to the growth of the sport as a public recreation for health, exercise, water safety — and just plain fun,” her biography on the hall of fame website reads.
In 1999, Williams penned “The Million Dollar Mermaid,” a candid look at her career and life in Hollywood.
In several films, Williams played opposite Latin lovers, including Ricardo Montalban and Fernando Lamas, the latter her third husband.
Lamas’ son, actor Lorenzo Lamas, paid tribute Thursday to his stepmother on Twitter: “The best swim teacher and soul mom RIP.”
Williams and her fourth husband operated a swimwear company in recent years.
Then in her late 70s, Williams told King in 1999 she still swam daily.
“It is the best part of my day. I see what it does for women,” Williams said. “I think I’ve invented the aerobics that you see at these retirement homes.”
Williams will always be remembered for the Technicolor films and the fashionable swimsuits she wore.
Should a swimsuit maybe you look better than you are? King asked Williams
“It should make you certainly look as good as you are,” she replied.
CNN’s Phil Gast and Toby Lyles contributed to this report.